Adaptation, prey, instinct

A lion adaptions, prey, instincts


The lion 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 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.

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