Picture of a lion cub’s striped coat contrasted with the plain coat of their father

This picture of a lion cub’s spotted and striped coat in contrast to their father’s plain coat caught my eye as a good example of nature protecting the vulnerable lion cub by improving their camouflage which is customised for the environment in which they live. The spots and stripes disappear after around nine months. It seems that nature decided that the cubs are sufficiently able to survive without the better protection of a more camouflaged coat when they reach the age of nine months.

Mel and Fiona Sunquist in their book Wild Cats of the World, state that the cat’s coat pattern “suggests that the ancestors of modern lions lived in more densely forested habitats”.

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Despite the camouflage and their parents best efforts, lion cub mortality is high at 16 percent in the Kruger National Park. There is abundant prey in the park which might partly explain why lion cub mortality is 40 per cent in the Kalahari where prey availability fluctuates more. In the Serengeti there are migratory systems creating great fluctuations in prey availability where lion cub mortality is at 63 per cent in their first year (source: Wild Cats of the World by Luke Hunter).

Lifespan

Separately but on the issue of lifespan and therefore survival, you might ask, “How long do small cats live?”

The answer is that we don’t know enough about the lifespans of the small wild cat species. A lot of what we know about them comes from observations of captive cats but it’s a different world in the wild.

In nature, as implied by the picture on this page, small wild cats face many dangers. Most wild cats die an early death. They don’t live out their years to old age and death by ‘natural causes’ which might be a good thing because old age for a wild cat in the wild is not a particularly pretty experience.

The canine teeth might become cracked and worn which would be a barrier to killing prey animals and of course they will be subject to disease in old age and ultimately starvation.

When a young cub – as we see in the photograph – grows up and becomes independent, they have to find their own home range which can be a struggle because a resident cat will defend their territory. Many freshly independent wild cats are killed in trying to establish their own territory.

But to return to cubs and kittens. They are incredibly vulnerable due to a range of reasons including a variable food supply, even an incompetent mother and to carelessness on behalf of the cubs. The first task is to grow up sufficiently to become able to be independent and improve their chances of survival.

But when they grow up, they are unable to reside in their mother’s home range. They have got to disperse to a fresh area which is fraught with many dangers.

They’ve got to go to areas they’d never been to before and face new challenges. It is a big challenge to find their own home range and defend it.

Sometimes individual cats travel huge distances. A puma in North America travelled 500 miles to do so. A Eurasian lynx in Switzerland travelled over a hundred miles before taking up residence in an unoccupied area.

Once they have found a home range life doesn’t really get any easier because they have got to defend it and find food and a mate to procreate. The chances are that the individual will not live to old age. They might be driven from their territory by another cat looking for their own home range who is stronger than them.

If they are pushed out from their home range they become an outsider, a loner ranging over a larger area trying to avoid resident males.

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