The Lion was once one of the most widespread large land mammals on the planet, evolving out of East Africa the lion spread quickly throughout the continent to Europe, the Middle East and throughout Asia.
The lion has evolved to become the only cat to live in large groups. There are many reasons why this would have become more effective efficient for the lions. Mainly living in open areas with larger prey, more individuals are needed to take down the abundant prey, more individuals means more to protect certain areas and potentially the best areas - waterholes. It is perhaps the success of their species that drove them to compete with the only real competitor they had that drove them into group tribal living - themselves.
THE SOCIAL CAT
The African Lion is the World's only social living cat and as such live in an incredibly complex and interesting society. Please use this page and scroll down to learn more abut the different stages of lion life and how different groups operate
Whereas most cat species are largely solitary apart from when mothers are rearing cubs, other cat species will only come together with other members of the same species to mate and over territorial conflicts. In recent years Amur Tiger males have been seen near a mother with cubs and it is very common place for cheetah males to form coalitions. The African lion however is the only cat that grows up within a its own society and is as such very unique in this respect.
Living in groups gives the lion many advantages on the vast open plains in which they live. Because they hunt together they are able to take down much larger prey than a similarly sized tiger would, they are also able to share the rearing of the cubs communally and most importantly they are able to work together to keep their territory – possibly the most crucial element of group living. Together they are an army.
Adult Females - The Pride
It is a commonly known fact that a group of lions is known as a ‘Pride’ but the true nature of a lion pride is actually very misunderstood and incredibly complex. The pride is a very complex society and they will all be made up of a different composition of males, females and youngsters. The core of any pride is the adult females. These are always related in some way and may be cousins, daughters, mothers and aunties and will live in the same territory that their maternal ancestors have lived in for generations.
The number of adult females can be anywhere between 2 to 8 or even more. Unlike popular belief these lionesses will not spend all of their time together. Like any cat they are very independent and lionesses may form smaller sub groups within their pride normally groups of sisters for example. These sub groups may come and go for weeks at a time only joining together as the main pride on occasion. This is known as a ‘Fission Fusion society’. Any cubs born to these lionesses will be born in a safe place away from the rest of the pride. Sometimes mothers giving birth at the same time may stick together. These cubs are then taken back to join the pride once they are about 6-8 weeks old. Lions can be very heavy handed so the first weeks alone with their mother allow them to grow in strength in peace.
Adult Males - The Coalition
Any Pride will be ruled by a group of male lions known as a ‘Coalition’. These males are not core members of the pride and will come and go as they please, only really joining the lionesses if they happen to be in breeding season or if there is food around. These males protect their territory and their lionesses from rival males who will come in to take over their territory, kill their cubs and mate with their females. Male lions are very well bonded to the other males within their coalition but will attempt to drive out or kill any male lion who attempts to take over their territory. Pride takeovers can be incredibly bloody affairs often ending in serious injury in death. Ultimately the coalition who remain the strongest after battle will continue or start their reign.
These coalitions are commonly made up of 2 to 4 lions (with 6 and 8 being recorded in the past as a rarity). With a larger coalition more than one prides can be taken increasing the success but also the amount of range needed to be patrolled on a regular basis. As such male lions spend most of their time patrolling their territory in search for rival males leaving any time ‘with the family’ at a minimum. However when the males are in the same location as the females they can be very tolerant fathers and can be very gentle when playing with their young cubs. Interestingly many coalitions are actually made up of unrelated males. While the females are incredibly hostile to one another, male lions may during their nomadic years recognise that numbers are important and join up with other males.
This is most likely to happen when male lions are young and will often be with males who are a similar age and size. This cooperative nature shows how far some males are willing to go to takeover a territory and a pride of their own one day. Bonds between males are incredibly strong and they will continue to fight together until their death. Naturally coalitions can change if death occurs. Alliances between young and old males have been recorded in the wild.
Male lions need to make sure that they can keep their territory for safe for around 2 - 3 years. This ensures that their offspring will have matured by the time new males take over. If they loose their reign any earlier than this there is a high chance that their offspring may be killed by the new males, discontinuing their genetic line into the next generation.
Growing Up - The Gender Game
Bonds between litter mates may be strong in the first couple of years but once they reach sexual maturity at around 2 - 3 years their gender dictates what happens to them. If they are male they will leave the birth pride either driven away by their fathers if they are perceived as a threat or even their mothers if they have given birth to a new litter and their attentions now lay elsewhere or new males will remove them or attempt to kill them when they takeover. Once out of the pride it is a hard life as they are not tolerated in the territories occupied by the adult male lions and seek refuge in the unoccupied areas generally on the edges, closer to the local communities where they then have a higher chance of conflicting with humans. In these nomadic years they will form the coalitions talked about above with their relatives or unrelated males and bide their time until they are strong enough to start challenging other adult males.
Lionesses however will stay within their home territory either with their mothers or nearby with other relatives as part of the bigger pride system. Lionesses are generally sexually mature at around 3 years old. Male lions mature at about the same age but will not be fully grown (including mane) till around 4-5 years. The development of the mane acts as an armour protecting their most vulnerable area from fights with other males - the neck. A large mane will not only defend you but it will also make the lion in question look a lot bigger than they actually are, potentially dissuading other males from coming close to fight in the first place.
On their own lionesses are able to take down wildebeest and antelope but by working together as a group they can take down much larger prey including buffalo, hippo and even young elephant or young giraffe. The lionesses are the perfect ambush hunters, their coats blending in with the African grasses whereas the male lions are a lot easy to spot with their manes. Because of this male lions are often scavengers, stealing food off smaller predators such as cheetah or jackals. If the male lions are with the pride they may take part in the hunt, but not until the prey is taken down, they will then use their brute strength to help take down the huge prey, the lionesses are ambush stalkers and the males are the brute strength. This is where they can take down the biggest prey. When it comes to feeding time the males will use their strength to take the first fill, it is often seen that they let their cubs feed with them and let the lionesses wait their turn. This allows the males to ensure the survival of their genetics, to them the lionesses enable them to do so but they are not as important as their own cubs. On larger carcasses the pride may all feed together and this is where the dominance structure is seen to work, the most dominant animals feeding first and the less dominant having to wait. The respect seen here allows the pride to function in a stable fashion.