is at once the most famous and the least typical member of the cat family. Sociality
is probably the single most exciting aspect of lion life and, as compared to other
cats, cannot be overemphasized. Other cats are solitary hunters; the lion is a
cooperative group hunter. Other cats live alone, the lion lives in prides. The
lions social level is closer to wolves and wild dogs than to the other cat species.
In addition, with other cats the male and female do not look conspicuously different;
with lions, the huge, dark mane of the male sets him clearly apart from the maneless
female. Another small difference: the lion is the only cat species to
| have a knoblike tuft
of dark hair at the tip of its tail. Studies of lions in the wild have rightly
brought the female lion into the spotlight. Females are the basis of lion society:
they are the hunters, cub rearers, and property owners and defenders. Female lions
can survive on their own, but they only thrive as members of a kin group. As a
communal creature, the female lion has few equals. That great symbol, the imposing
male, is a loner by human design only. In reality, in the wild, a male's chances
of survival alone are at best slim, and not helped by its all too visible mane
that alerts enemies as well as prey. Also, a lone male's chances of gaining access
to, or keeping, females long enough to produce viable cubs are dimmer than his
chances of winning a fight all by himself (though the mane would help here, intimidating
as well as protecting).
King or queen, a lion needs to be part of a pride. A pride usually comprises about
five to six adult females, a set or coalition of adult males, and any cubs. A
small pride can be just one female and her cubs, the largest can number up to
40, but the norm is around 15. The essential thing about pride structure is that
all the females are related: mothers, daughters, aunts, cousins. Only under very
rare circumstances do distantly related or unrelated females team up. In fact,
there is no hard evidence at this time, which indicates that unrelated females
will accept each other long enough to form an enduring pride, that is, one with
generations and a more or less stable range.
Males, on the other hand, do join together even when unrelated as the dangers
and lack of opportunities for single males seem to be so great. Unrelated males
will form coalitions that last for years. Pairs and trios of males are just as
often unrelated as they are related while groups of four or more males are usually
related: brothers, half sibs, cousins, all born in the same pride.
Whether a coalition of ”buddies” or a true brotherhood, young male
groups need to hunt together or scavenge to survive. Young males are always ousted
from their natal pride when their fathers lose out to intruding males. At that
age, usually two to four years, they are not yet competent hunters, having been
provided for by their mothers and sisters, and they wander widely trying to stay
alive. These males, or nomads, have to learn to hunt, a task made simpler only
in times of abundant prey such as when the wildebeest calve on the Serengeti Plains.
It may also be an advantage to young males to have a small or blond mane when
learning to hunt as they are not as conspicuous to prey, and other adult males
are less likely to notice, attack, or steal food from them.
Some young males are lucky enough to be evicted along with their sisters with
whom they can hunt. And some are lucky enough to be born with many brothers and
not evicted until around the age of four by which time they are fully grown and
have large manes. Having a big mane goes with being well fed and healthy, and
if the big mane is black it seems to have the added advantage of intimidating
other males from a distance. A large mane may also alert females and give them
clues as to the health and vigor of the males in question. Well-grown young males
in large groups can more or less march into a neighboring pride, chase off the
resident males, and settle in to live a good life.
||Once established with a pride, males are usually
able to scrounge food from the females, but they also have pride duties: males
have to patrol and mark their territory by spraying urine, rubbing secretions
of glands on objects, and roaring. Females also mark and roar and both males and
females have to chase or fight off intruders, risking death or disability. Males
only defend against other males while females defend against other females as
well as strange males. Competition
| between male groups for access to a pride can
be intense — female groups do not go unescorted for long. Membership in
a pride is usually gained by a new group of males ousting any resident males and
often this involves fights that are sometimes lethal. The larger the group of
males the more successful they are.
Sometimes adult males will abandon a pride after they have stayed for about two
years, in order to find receptive females in a new pride. Even when abandoned,
the females of a pride do not just accept any males. Sometimes they will mate
with several different sets of males before settling down to just one. Again,
it is the larger groups of males who will usually have the tenacity and win out.
If some of the pride’s females have little cubs they will often run away
from any unfamiliar males thus dividing the pride which then may take months or
years to reunite under the tenure of a specific set of males. Gaining new males
is usually a traumatic event for a pride. New males will chase and kill any cubs,
subadults, or even adult females if the females do not mate with them. If their
cubs have been killed, the females are generally ready to mate soon after, and
so this cub killing or infanticide ensures that any cubs born subsequently will
be the offspring of the new males. Courtship and mating between pride females
and new males is an especially extended affair. During the months after a takeover,
females repeatedly come into estrus without getting pregnant. This not only allows
females time to get to know the various males trying to breed with them, but it
also allows the males to sort themselves out. Eventually, after about six months
of periodic mating, cubs are born.
Often several females will bear at around the same time. Cubs born into such “synchronized”
or “communal” litters have a number of advantages. First, they have
a better chance of survival, being suckled and defended by more than one “mother,”
and second, their fathers, newly in possession of the pride, are likely to be
around while the cubs grow up. The adult males now protect instead of persecute.
Communal litters also do better in the long term because there is a greater chance
that both males and females will have like-sexed littermates, which helps them
to survive and establish themselves when they leave their natal pride. Without
question, lions in groups do better at all stages of life.
Even in groups though, males have a hard life. They seldom live longer than 12
years in the wild while females sometimes reach 16 or older. Even when an old
female loses most of her teeth the pride will wait for her and share with her,
as long as she can keep up. When males are old, they are ousted from the pride
by younger and stronger males. Exiled males can steal from most other predators
but if they have to hunt on their own they fare poorly and often get terrible
wounds from kicks and horns. When they lose their teeth or health, or, indeed,
when they lose a team-mate they soon die.