What is the social organisation of lions?

The social organisation of the lion is in flux but it is useful to start at the situation that most people know which is a settled pride of lions comprising, on average, 4-5 (range 1-11), related females (sisters, daughters, cousins and aunts) with their young and sub-adult male offspring and a temporary, unrelated coalition of normally 2 (range 1-9) adult males. Lioness to do most of the hunting and killing but the males of the pride push off the females and cubs when feeding.

Lion pride
Lion pride. Image by Sue Brady from Pixabay
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They will live in an area which is fruitful in terms of prey. But despite the pride being stable the system is flexible such that if there is a prolonged drought, for example, and prey density declines, the pride of males and females might abandon their territory and become nomadic. Under the stress of a prolonged drought, females might cooperate with unrelated females. In a study of lions in Kruger National Park, they found that when the male lions were hunted extensively and therefore their population size was diminished the male coalitions were small at 0.67 – 1.5 males per pride. Further, their ranges did not cover the entire range of a pride. The females mated with males from different prides. And one pride male accepted additional males during his tenure.

Asiatic lion Gir Forest
Asiatic lion Gir Forest. Photo by Rupal Vaidya (Flickr)

The female and male lions of the Gir Forest in India live separate lives and hardly ever associate with each other except during mating activities and at large kills.

When sub-adults become independent, they leave their natal pride and form coalitions of 2-6 but this varies as you can see by the numbers above. They will either do this voluntarily of their own accord or be ousted by a new group of incoming males. It is said that the sub-adults leave the pride because they need to mate with unrelated females in different pride in order to ensure genetic diversity and the survival of the species as a whole.

Lions Serengeti
Lions Serengeti. Image by 18986 from Pixabay

Young males normally leave their natal pride with their brothers and/or half-brothers. If a young lion is the only male in his litter he may join with male lions from other prides.

Male coalitions of 2 or 3 are normally unrelated while larger coalitions are made up of relatives. They lead a nomadic life. They try to avoid being attacked by resident males and they learn to hunt and scavenge. They patrol territories and make their own kills.

Male lions in a coalition
Male lions in a coalition. Photo: Daily Mail. These are black maned lions. The dark mane is attractive to females.

Breeding coalitions of males (sexually mature) compete with others for access to the females for mating. To achieve this, they move into a pride (take it over) and have a hold over the pride (a “tenure”) for a few months or perhaps as a maximum for several years.

Sometimes now coalitions take over two adjoining prides. Females often repel males attempting to take over the pride. They do this because incoming males kill their cubs (infanticide) in order to mate with the females to have their own offspring. The females defend their cubs.

Mel and Fiona Sunquist in their book Wild Cats of the World State that members of prides are often scattered around their territory in small groups. They coalesce, they say or split like “fusion-fision” groups in primates. Sometimes a small group may become bonded and they are referred to as sub-prides. They may infrequently interact with other pride members. Some pride members “refrain from communal hunts or expelling intruders”. They say that this indicates that the pride is quite a complex organisation which is based on cooperation but cooperation is not always forthcoming.

In the Serengeti, the largest pride size reported was 35 individuals. These prides, living in a prey-rich woodland environment, have territories of about 65 km². Prides living on the plains have territories of over 184 km² when prey was less abundant. The prides are bigger in woodlands at 20 individuals compared to 13 on the plains.

As for other cat species, lions mark territory by urine scent mark spraying. Both males and females scent mark like this but males spray urine more frequently than females. It seems that they copy each other when scraping the ground to mark territory that way.

Everybody knows the lion roar and it is believed that this is a territorial display or a spacing mechanism or perhaps a device to ensure group cohesion and to ensure that contact is facilitated. It may be useful to achieve all these goals.

Below are some more articles on the lion.

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