Six Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Lions

While that little “about” to the right mentions I have a couple of biology degrees under my belt, I think only a few of my readers know my obsession with lions, specifically. My obsession started just as I was finishing up my B.Sc. and took a study abroad to Kenya. There, some fascinating direct personal experience with lions changed my whole life’s course and goals. I ended up in a Ph.D. program in Chicago with a goal of learning everything there was to know about lions.

I left my Ph.D. program (where I spent a bunch of time reading journal articles about lions [and other things]) and launched this blog within about six months of each other. The launch was three years ago, on 1 June 2010 & the departure was at the end of 2010.

Sometimes, I miss my program and my studies a lot. This was particularly brought home to me a week ago, when John Romano, a teacher in Philadelphia I follow, started live-tweeting a lion documentary he was showing his class. His class was also tweeting it, with the hash tag #InLion. While most of my tweets in reply to his aren’t tagged (I felt uncomfortable horning in on his class), I couldn’t help myself – I did end up replying with a few things I remembered from hours and hours and hours of study.

So, because of that twitter interaction, because I miss my studies, because this blog just turned three and I didn’t even say anything, because Joe, my father-in-law, just asked when I was going to update the blog again and mostly because lions are the coolest ever, here’s six things I remember about lions. There are minimal citations – I’m going off memory here. But if you want to know more, ask. I’ll dredge my memory and try to give you enough information that we can find it.

If you enjoy this, let me know. I’ll see if I can, eventually, come up with either more in-depth posts about anything, or another post of another five or so facts from memory.

1) Female lions stay in the territory their mothers controlled when they were born for life, while males engage in long-distance dispersal to find prides to breed with. Most people know this. What they don’t think about is the implications. Namely, that male lions can hunt for themselves – they actually spend most of their lives NOT with a pride, so they have to be able to. I do not, personally, know exactly what tactics they take, but check out the next fact.

2) At least a couple of studies have shown that males associated with a pride can and will hunt for themselves as well. This is an interesting thing, because both have linked male hunting behavior to at least partially to vegetation structure. In the case of Kruger National Park, Funston et al, 1998 (I believe) demonstrated this was, indirectly, a form of males caring for their cubs. With denser vegetation for the females to hide cubs in, the males could range farther & catch their own prey. This allowed their cubs to eat more AND, potentially, a coalition of males to have more than one pride, increasing their reproductive fitness in two ways.

3) It’s well known that males who take over a pride of females will kill off any young cubs the females have. What isn’t well known is that a male takeover of this nature also drives away some or all animals who are called “subadults” – not yet full grown, but no longer very small. This is one of the few ways a female will leave the territory she was born in. While this is not necessarily a death sentence for her, it dramatically reduces her chances of survival and successful reproduction, especially if she is driven off alone. Females rarely, if ever, form prides with other females who are unrelated. As I recall, I have only read about that happening once.

4) Male lions, on the other hand, regularly form coalitions with unrelated male lions. While we tend to think of lion “society” as groups of females with one male, the reality is different. Generally, there will be a pride of females associated with a coalition of 2 − 4 males. The larger the male group size, the better their reproductive fitness, as they are more able to maintain their connection with the pride & not be driven off by other coalitions, thus keeping cubs alive.

5) That said, if a coalition is 4 males, they will almost certainly be related. Packer et al (1991) found that as coalition size grows, reproductive success of each individual becomes dramatically skewed, such that one or two males is breeding, and the others are not. Thus, if one particular male is a non-breeding helper, it’s only worth it to be in that coalition in the event that helper male is protecting relations. However, coalitions of 4 generally can maintain relations with a pride for longer, possibly as long as four years. As it takes about two to raise cubs to adulthood, this means a large coalition may have twice as much success with any one pride than a smaller coalition – another possible reason to stay on as a non-breeding related male.

6) As you’ve probably caught on by now, while the average person says “a pride of lions” and means “all the lions that are associated with each other,” lion researchers actually differentiate lion groups based on the sex of the group. A “pride” of lions is a group of related females that live together, almost always in the area they were born in. A “coalition” is a group of males, related or not, that associate with each other and jointly associate with prides or not. It can get a little confusing, because if a coalition is associated with a pride, they will be called “pride males” at times, so “pride” can, occasionally, mean the super-group of all the females and males currently associating with each other. However, generally speaking, if you keep the idea that “pride” means “group of female lions” and “coalition” means “group of male lions”, you’ll be able to quickly follow a lot of lion talk.

Papers I specifically mentioned:

Funston, P. J., Mills, M. G. L., Biggs, H. C., & Richardson, P. R. K. (1998). Hunting by male lions: ecological influences and socioecological implications. Animal Behaviour, 56(6), 1333-1345.

Packer, C., Gilbert, D. A., Pusey, A. E., & O’Brien, S. J. (1991). A molecular genetic analysis of kinship and cooperation in African lions. Nature, 351(6327), 562-565.

4 thoughts on “Six Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Lions

  1. Now there is a bunch of stuff I never knew. Didn’t think I was reading it, right? BTW – 4 bacon recipes curing as we speak.

    • I knew you were reading! Somewhere in here, there’s a margarita recipe from you.

      I bet that bacon is gonna be delicious. Can’t wait to hear about it. Be careful – I might ask you to write a post about it. 😉

  2. Hi family (I’m Tasha’s aunt-in-law, her father-in-law’s big sister)! I tuned in to see what’s new with food and beer … and this is a special treat. I didn’t know that “stuff” (my bro has a way with words), either. You and Bill need to come back to Seattle this summer — we’ve got cherry tomatoes and jalapenos about to pop!

    • So glad you enjoyed the post, Katherine!

      Oh, man! Tomatoes! We don’t really have tomatoes yet. There’s some from aquaculture & maybe hoop houses, it seems, but nothing just out there & crazy. I can’t wait. And I hope we manage to come back this summer. Seattle is pretty fun!

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