Lions breed year-round. They do not mate at any specific time of the year. Lionesses are polyestrous and most of them mature and become reproductive by the time they are four years of age. As with other cats, male’s penis has spines that point backwards. As the penis is withdrawn spines rake the walls of the vagina, which causes ovulation. Mating does not restricts to one partner, a lioness can mate with more than one males when she is in heat; during mating period, which could last quite a few days, the couple copulates twenty to forty times in a single day and is even likely to forgo eating. There are instances when these animals have been observed copulating up to as many as 100 times in 24 hour period! Lions reproduce very well in captivity. One estrus out of every 5 results in a litter and lions mate roughly 2.2 times per hour for the estrus period, which may last 4 to 6 days.
Giving birth and caring for cubs
The average gestation period in lions is of about 110 days. Lionesses give birth to a litter of one to four cubs in a secluded and secured place (which may be a reed-bed, cave, a thicket or some other sheltered location) generally away from the rest of the pride. Mother will often hunt by herself whilst the cubs are still helpless, but she stays close to the place where cubs are kept. Cubs are blind when they are born and their eyes do not open until they are about a week old. They weigh 1.2–2.1 kg (2.6–4.6 lb) at birth and begin to crawl a day or two after the birth and walking starts around three weeks of age. Female moves her cubs to a new site several times a month. She carries them one by one holding in her mouth by the nape of the neck. This is a part of security precautions and the purpose is to prevent the scent from building up at the site and thus avoiding the attention of predators that may harm the cubs.
Normally lionesses do not mix herself and her cubs back into the pride until the young are six to eight weeks old, however, sometimes it occurs earlier, especially when other females have given birth to their cubs at about the same time. In a pride, lionesses often synchronize their reproductive cycles in such a way that they cooperate in the raising and suckling of the young (once the cubs are past the initial stage of isolation with their mother), who suckle randomly from any or all of the nursing females. Besides providing greater protection, the system of synchronization of births has another advantage — cubs end up being roughly the same size, and thus have an equal chance of survival. In a different scenario, if a litter of cubs is born to a lioness couple of months after an earlier litter then the younger cubs, being much smaller, are in all likelihood would be dominated by older ones at mealtimes. In that case deaths due to starvation will be more common amongst the younger cubs.
Cubs face many dangers in addition to starvation. Predation by hyenas, leopards, jackals, martial eagles and snake bites are the major threats. Even buffaloes, should they catch the scent of lion cubs, often try to ward off the lioness and kill the cubs by trampling them. Furthermore, when one or more new males oust the previous male or males associated with the pride, the conqueror(s) kill existing cubs. This hurriedly brings females into breeding condition, ensuring that the strongest male gets to breed and continue his genetic line. As a result of this, on an average as many as 80% cubs do not reach the age of two.
When the cubs are introduced to the pride for the first time, they lack the confidence to face the adults other than their mother. However, they soon overcome the fright and start mingling with the other members. Females who themselves have cubs are more likely to be tolerant of other lioness’s cubs rather than those who are without offspring. The tolerance level of males varies — sometimes they will patiently let the cubs play with his tail or his mane, but sometimes they snarl and beat the cubs away.
Weaning takes place after 6-7 months. Males attain maturity at about 3 years and by the time they are 4–5 years old they become so strong that they are capable of challenging and ousting the adult male(s) associated with any pride. They start to age and weaken between 10 and 15 years, if they have not already been critically injured whilst defending the pride (once ousted from the pride by rivals, males hardly ever manage a second take-over). This leaves a short window for their own offspring to be born and mature. If they are successful in procreating as soon as they take over a pride, potentially, they may have more offspring reaching maturity before they also are ousted. After the new male takes over the pride mothers usually defend their cubs fiercely against the usurping male, but such attempts are rarely successful because lionesses are weaker and much lighter than males. He generally kills all the cubs that are less than two years old. The likelihood of success is more only when a group of three or four mothers within a pride join forces against a single male.
Orphaned lionesses learn motherhood at Junagadh zoo
Four Asiatic lionesses that were orphaned as cubs have been successfully taught motherhood by Sakkarbaug Zoo officials in Junagadh (Gujrat, India). Forest officials observed that when orphaned female cubs turned adult in captivity and gave birth, they did not know how to take care of their little ones, as they had never lived with their mothers. “As a result, almost half of the cubs born to an orphaned lioness during the first littering died,” said a senior forest official. The cubs died due to malnutrition as the mother did not know how to feed them. Many died when she trampled upon them or did not lift them properly.
Zoo officials observed behaviour of lionesses through CCTV cameras placed in enclosures. In 2008, a lioness gave birth to three cubs but did not care for them and they were left to fend for themselves. “These cubs were brought out of the cage and given hand rearing to reduce the mortality,” said R L Meena, chief conservator of forests, wildlife division, Junagadh. However, as hand rearing and artificial feeding is not advisable, the zoo officials began an experiment. They kept a four-year-old orphaned lioness close to another female which was raising its cubs normally.
“The orphaned lioness started observing how the other lioness took care of the cubs, fed them milk and lifted them. We achieved a major success when this orphaned lioness, whose first three cubs had died, later properly raised her three other cubs,” said V J Rana, Director, Sakkarbaug Zoo,
This experiment of teaching ‘motherhood’ to orphaned lioness was carried out on three other females and all gave birth to three cubs each and raised them successfully. Of these, two lionesses were shifted to Ramapara vidi in Rajkot district (Gujrat) where gene pools are being created to conserve the genetic diversity of Asiatic lions.
“This experiment is very important to conserve Asiatic lions. We will be able to save more cubs and conserve animals,” Dr Y V Zhala, head, conservation biology and animal ecology at Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, said. (Times Of India — Mar 4, 2012)
Males and females both can be ousted from pride
It’s a popular belief that only males are ousted from their pride to become nomads, but it is not entirely true. Sometimes females too face the same fate. Although the majority of females certainly do remain with their birth pride, but when the pride becomes too large, the next generation of female cubs may be forced to leave to eke out their own territory. In addition, when a new male takes over the pride, sub-adults, both male and female, may be evicted. Life becomes very harsh for a female nomad. They rarely manage to raise their cubs to maturity, without the protection of a pride.
According to a study both the sexes in lions may interact homosexually. Males pair-bond for a number of days and begin homosexual activity with affectionate nuzzling and caressing, leading to mounting and thrusting. About 8% of mountings have been observed to occur with other males. Female pairings are held to be fairly common in captivity, but have not been observed in the wild.
In the wild the average lifespan of a lion is up to 16 years, but in captivity, they often live 10 years beyond that.