The Only True Social Cat

Sasangir : A group of Lions bask in open in Gir wild life sanctuary at Sasangir, Gujarat recently. PTI Photo

Lions (Panthera leo) are the only true social cats and live in groups called prides, where all the females are related and usually live with the pride for life. They can be mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and sisters. Females do most of the hunting and cub rearing. Most of the females of a pride give birth to their young at about the same time. Advantage of this system is that all lactating females will allow any cub in the pride to be nursed.

Each pride is usually controlled by not more than two males who generally hold on to a pride not more than 3-5 years before any younger, stronger male or coalition of males throws them out and takes over. If the resident males are defeated they will leave the pride and would seldom return.

When a new male takes over the pride it usually kills all the cubs from the previous male or males ensuring that all future offspring will have his genes. The main responsibilities of males include hunting, raising cubs and defending the pride’s territory. Males’ loud roars are usually heard after sunset and they can be heard as far as five miles (eight kilometers) away. The purpose of these roars is to warn off intruders and help round up stray members of the pride. Males and females both intensely fight against any outside lions that attempt to join their pride. Maybe in this case the family that preys together stays together!

Group organization

Lion_the_Pride_leader_(the_Creative_Commons_Attribution-Share_Alike_3.0_Unported_license)If we look deeper into their social system lions, who are basically predatory carnivores, manifest two types of social organization. Some are residents that live in groups, called prides, which usually consists of approximately five or six related females, their cubs of both sexes, and one or two males (known as a coalition if more than one) who mate with the adult females (although extremely large prides, consisting of up to 30 individuals, have also been observed). The number of adult males in a coalition is usually two, but may increase to four and decrease again over time. Male cubs are driven away from the maternal pride as they reach maturity.

The second organizational behaviour is of those who lead a nomadiclife. These individuals range widely and move about sporadically, either alone or in pairs, which are more frequent among related males who have been driven away from their birth pride. Not that a lion may not change lifestyles — residents may become nomads and vice versa. Majority of the young males go through the nomadic kind of lifestyle and later in life become resident, but there are some who are never able to join any other pride. When any female becomes a nomad she faces much greater difficulty in joining a new pride. Reason is all the females in any pride are related, they jointly oppose the attempts by an unrelated female to join their family group.

Any area occupied by a pride is called a pride area, whereas that by a nomad is a range. The males associated to a pride are likely to stay on the periphery and guarding the territory. Why sociality — the most distinct in any cat species — has developed in lionesses is the topic of much discussion. Increase in hunting success seems to be an apparent reason, but this is less than certain when examined: coordinated and synchronized hunting does allow more success is predation, but it also ensures that non-hunting members lessen the per capita caloric intake; however, some take a role raising cubs, which may be left alone for extended periods of time. Individuals belonging to a pride repeatedly tend to play the same role in hunts. Health of the members who hunt is the basic need for the continued existence of the pride and they are the first to eat the prey at the site it is taken. Other advantages include likely kin selection (better to share food with a related member rather than with an alien), safety of the young, looking after of the territory, and individual insurance against injury and hunger.

Since lionesses are smaller in size, swifter and agile than males, they do most of the hunting. They also do not have heavy, conspicuous and cumbersome mane, which cause overheating during physical exertion. They act as a harmonized group in order to stalk and bring down the prey successfully. However, if close by the hunt, males have a habit of dominating the kill once the females have succeeded. They are more likely to share with the cubs than the lionesses, but seldom share food they have killed themselves. If the prey is smaller it is eaten at the site of the hunt, in this manner it is shared only among the hunters; when the kill is larger it is often dragged to the pride area and is shared by all. However, in an effort to consume as much food as possible, pride members often behave aggressively towards each other.

Whenever there is a threat both males and females come forward to defend the pride. In almost every pride there are always some individual lions who time and again lead the defense against intruders, whereas others lag behind. This behaviour has been puzzling scientists for quite a long time. To understand it they conducted some experiments but ultimately they reached a conclusion that the intricacies of these responses highlight the great variety of individual behavior in this species and the inadequacy to explain cooperation in large groups. They believe that the lions have a propensity to assume specific roles in the pride.

An alternate theory is that there is some reward linked with being a leader who fends off intruders and the rank of lionesses in the pride is reflected in these responses. The male or males related with the pride must protect their association with the pride from outsiders who try to usurp it. Females form the steady social unit in a pride and do not accept outside females. Membership changes only with the deaths and births of females, although some of them do leave and become nomads. On the other hand sub-adult males have to leave the pride when they reach maturity at around 2–3 years of age.

Lions spend about 20 -21 hours a day resting. Late afternoon is the time when they are most likely to become active. Females often suckle their young followed by play and other social activities. Usually it is in the night when hunting activity takes place. However, these animals will seize opportunities to catch prey at whatever time and even if they are too gorged to eat. Those prides that live in woodland habitat, with plenty of cover, hunt in the daytime more than those living in savannahs. Lions are apparently also well aware of the advantages of darkness for the purpose of hunting: hungry animals will lie around on moonlight nights until moon disappears and then they will suddenly become active. Males in the wild spend about 80 per cent of their time being inactive (resting), 15 per cent time active socializing/mating/dominance and 5 per cent on active-feeding and hunting. Females in the wild spend about 70 per cent of the time being inactive (resting), 15 per cent on active socializing/parenting and 15 per cent on active-feeding and hunting.

Sister Lioness babysitting her step siblings

A young Asiatic lioness has been observed (March 2013) in the Gir sanctuary (Gujrat, India), babysitting her three six-week-old step siblings while the mother is away hunting. Lioness not only watches over the cubs, but also hunts for them whenever needed. Deputy conservator of forests, Sandeep Kumar, who has documented this behavior says normally one-and-a-half month old cubs are not given raw meat. “They only survive on mother’s milk,” he says.

Here the case is different, “we noticed that when the mother is away, the sister not only takes care of her siblings but also gets them fresh meat and they seem to be doing well so far.” According to Kumar on a couple of occasions, the sister dragged the kill to the cubs and watched them eat.

Hunting and Killing Strategies

In open plains lions usually hunt at night, but when it comes to places where there are forests, high grass or thick foliage, hunting may occur during the day. A study by Dr. Craig Packer, at the Lion Research Center, on the reintroduction of lions into South African Parks, has shown that lion’s strategy is to ambush prey at water holes or rivers. For this they prefer to hunt near river confluences that funnel prey into smaller areas. His conclusion is that highly alluring spots will remain so for generations.

Lions taking down Cape buffalo (CCA)

Lions are powerful creatures but they are not known for their stamina. For instance, a female’s heart makes up only 0.57 per cent of her body weight, while male’s is roughly 0.45 per cent. Lions’ real enemy hyena’s heart is about 1 per cent of its body weight. Thus, although lionesses can achieve speeds of 81 km/h (50 mph), but they are unable to sustain it for long, it’s only for short distances. In the given situation they cannot catch fast-running animals, so they have devised a strategy, which involves reaching as closer as possible to their prey before launching the attack. For this they take advantage of various factors to conceal themselves while moving towards the target, like lying low in the savannah grass or taking cover of tree trunks or bushes before attacking the prey. This is the reason that most of the kills take place near some form of cover or at night. Usually lions try to sneak up to the victim until they reach a distance of about 30 meters (98 ft) or less. Since lionesses hunt in open spaces where they are easily seen by the prey, cooperative hunting increases the likelihood of a successful hunt, especially in the case of larger species. They surround the herd from all sides and then target the closest prey. Teamwork also enables them to defend the kill against other large predators and scavengers, like hyenas that may be attracted by vultures from kilometers away in open savannas.

In every hunt, each lioness has a preferred position in the group, either stalking the prey on the “wing” then attacking, or moving a smaller distance in the centre of the group and capturing prey in flight from other lionesses. Cubs display their first stalking behavior when they are about three months old. They do not take part in hunting until they are approximately a year old. Their effective hunting activity starts when they reach second year of their life.  

The attack is short and very powerful; they try to catch the victim with a fast rush and final leap. Once the prey is caught it is usually killed by strangulation, which causes cerebral ischemia or asphyxia (which results in hypoxemic, or “general,” hypoxia). If the prey is big and strong it may be killed by the lion by catching hold of animal’s mouth and nostrils in the jaws (which also results in asphyxia). Smaller preys are killed simply by a swipe of a powerful paw.

It has been observed that males attached to prides seldom hunts with the family group except in the case of larger quarry such as giraffe and buffalo. Perhaps the reason is that its mane makes it too obvious. Females hunt instinctively in a cooperative and coordinated fashion. While pursuing or stalking the prey in a group they spread out to surround it and at the same time also attempt to drive it towards one another. In a situation where lions can only run 36 mph, while some of the prey can reach up to 50 mph, cooperation, coordination and stealth are vital to be successful. Lionesses are skilled stalkers and their color also helps in camouflaging. This is the reason that the females are more successful in getting very close to their prey, which often has the ability to run faster than her. It has been found in the research conducted in the Serengeti that individual lions succeed about 17 per cent of the time while group succeeds around 30 per cent of the time.

After successful hunt the prey is eaten by all members of the pride. As everyone tries to snatch as much as possible, fights, hissing, growling and paw swiping often takes. The strongest takes the ‘lions share’, which usually include males. After the males have their fill females come next and the cubs get what’s left. Ultimately they all calm down and greet each other affectionately and the peaceful life of the pride goes on.

Despite being the apex and the fierce predators these cats aren’t the most successful hunters. They generally score only one kill out of several attempts. They also scavenge as opportunity allows. While lions do not typically hunt humans, some have been known to do so.

Prey species

Lion’s prey consists mainly of large mammals with a preference for zebras, buffalos, wildebeest, warthogs and impalas in Africa and wild boars, nilgai (biggest Asian antelope also known as nilgau or blue bull) and several species of deers in India where Asiatic lions are found. Other species are also taken, based on the availability. They include ungulates weighing between 50 and 300 kg (110–660 lb) such as hartebeest, kudu, eland and gemsbok. Smaller species like Thomson’s gazelle or springbok are also eaten occasionally. Since lions hunt in groups, they are capable of killing most animals, but in most parts of their range they seldom attack very large prey such as full grown elephants or male giraffes due to the danger of injury.

Wide-ranging data collected over various studies illustrate that these cats normally feed on mammals in the range of 190–550 kg (420–1210 lb). In Africa, wildebeests are the most preferred prey of lions (making almost half of the prey in the Serengeti) followed by zebras. Most adult elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, other smaller animals like impalas and gazelles, and other agile antelopes are generally not included. However, buffalos and giraffes are often taken in certain areas. For example, in Kruger National Park, giraffes are frequently hunted. Cape buffaloes constitute as much as 62 per cent of the lion’s diet in Manyara Park, due to high number density. Seldom hippopotamus is also taken, but adult rhinos are normally avoided. Warthogs, which are smaller than 190 kg (420 lb), are often hunted depending on availability. In some areas, around the Savuti River, lions have specialized in killing out of the usual run of prey species – the elephants. According to the reports of Park guides in the area, lions driven by intense hunger, started taking down baby elephants, and later moved on to adolescents and, seldom, fully grown adults during the night when the pachyderm’s vision is poor.

Lions also kill farm animals; in India domestic livestock is often eaten up by these animals. They are so powerful that they often attack and kill other predators such as cheetahs, hyenas, leopards and wild dogs, but the interesting part is that unlike most felids they seldom consume the competitors after killing them. Lions are known also for scavenging animals either died naturally (disease or old age etc.) or killed by other predators. For this they keep a constant lookout for circling vultures, being keenly aware that they indicate an animal dead or in distress.


A full grown lion normally eats about 25 lbs of meat, but may eat up to 30 kg (66 lb) in one sitting. Adult females need an average of 11 pounds of meat daily. The pride makes available food to its sick and wounded members but not to the males. They use their size and power to take what they want of the lioness’ kill. Most lions drink water daily if available, but can go four or five days without it. Lions, living in arid areas, appear to take needed moisture from the stomach contents of the prey.

Lions rule over other predators

Lions have a tendency to rule over smaller felines such as leopards and cheetahs in areas where they are sympatric. Given the chance they will steal their food and kill their cubs and even adults. It is the lions that are responsible for killing most of the cheetah cubs. 90 per cent of the cheetah cubs are killed in their first few weeks of life due to attacks by predators. There are almost 50 per cent chances of Cheetahs losing their kill to lions or other predatory animals. To avoid competition and confrontation cheetahs hunt at a different time of the day and also hide their cubs in safe places like among boulders and thick brush etc. Leopards, which are also afraid of lions, use the same tactics, but have the advantage of being able to subsist much better on small prey than either lions or cheetahs. In addition, unlike cheetahs, leopards can climb up trees and use them to keep their cubs and kills away from lions. However, lionesses too are able to climb trees, but they are not as accomplished climber as the leopards are. Still they occasionally succeed in stealing the leopard’s kill from the tree. Lions also dominate African wild dogs, not only taking their kills but also preying on both young and adults (although the latter are rarely caught).

In regions where spotted hyenas and lions are sympatric – both species occupying same ecological niche – they are usually in direct competition with each other. In a number of cases, the amount of dietary overlap can be as high as 68.8%. Lions generally ignore spotted hyenas, unless they are on a kill or are being harassed by them. Hyenas themselves tend to apparently react to the existence of lions, whether there is food or not. Lions will readily snatch the kills of spotted hyenas: in the Ngorongoro crater, it is frequent for lions to survive mostly on kills stolen from hyenas, causing them to enhance their kill rate. Lions at once follow the calls made by hyenas while feeding, a fact, which was proven by Dr. Hans Kruuk. He found that the cats again and again approached him whenever he played the tape-recorded calls of hyenas feeding. It has been observed that when challenged on a kill by lions, hyenas normally wait patiently at a distance of 40–100 meters until the king of the jungle have finished. In some cases, hyenas have been found to be bold enough to feed alongside lions, and may seldom force the lions off a kill. Being a natural competitor, both the animals may act aggressively towards one another even when there is no food involved. It has been observed that lions often charge at hyenas and maul them for no evident reason. In a recorded incident a male lion killed two matriarch hyenas on different occasions without eating them. The fact is that lion predation can account for up to 71 per cent of hyena deaths in Etosha. Hyenas have adapted to this pressure by regularly mobbing lions that enter their territories.

Apart from humans, Nile crocodiles are the only sympatric predators that can singly threaten the lion. It’s the size of the animal that will decide who will lose food to the other. There are incidents in which lions have killed crocodiles that happen to venture on land, while the reverse is true for lions entering waterways containing crocodiles. This is evident from the fact that lion claws have on occasion been found in crocodiles’ stomach.


Lion’s expressive movements are highly developed and they socialize through a number of behaviors. Head rubbing and social licking are the most common peaceful tactile gestures that can be compared with grooming in primates. This serves social as well as physical needs of the pride. Grooming serves many purposes – hard and rough tongue combs the fur clean, removes off blood after feeding, and eradicates fleas, ticks and other parasites. It also reinforces social bonds among the pride members.

Another expression includes head rubbing — snuggling one’s face, forehead and neck against another. It seems to be a form of greeting, as it is seen often after an animal has been apart from others, or after a fight or confrontation. It is interesting to note that males tend to rub other male, while females and cubs rub females. Social licking frequently occurs in tandem with head rubbing. It is usually mutual and the recipient seems to express joy. The neck and head are the most common parts of the body licked. This may have arisen out of utility, as the animals cannot lick these regions themselves.

Lions have a variety of facial expressions and body postures that serve as visual signals. They are also conscious of the subtle changes in postures of each other. Lion’s facial language is extraordinarily wide-ranging from a belligerent, defensive threat, with snarling or hissing to an aggressive threat with growls.

Their range of verbal communication is also very large; change in intensity and pitch, rather than distinct signals, seem central to communication. Lions have quite a variety of sounds which include roaring, hissing, snarling, purring, coughing, meowing and woofing. They also tend to roar in a very distinctive manner, starting with a few deep, long roars that trail off into a series of shorter ones. They most often roar at night and their sound can be heard to a distance of 8 kilometers (5.0 miles). Lions that have the loudest roar of any big cat are used to advertise the animal’s presence.

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