The lion (Panthera leo) has a number of characteristics that differentiate it from the other wild predatory cats of the world. One of the key differences is its social behavior. While some lions are nomadic and travel and hunt individually or in pairs, most lions live in a social organization known as a pride. It's a trait that's quite unique among the world's large cat species, most of which are lone hunters throughout their adult lives.
The Organization of a Pride
The size of a lion pride can vary widely, and the structure differs between African and Asian subspecies. On average, a lion pride consists of about three males and a dozen females, along with their young (although prides with as many as 40 animals have been observed). In the rarer Asian subspecies, however, lions divide themselves in gender-specific prides in which males and females remain in separate groups except for mating time.
In the typical African pride, the females form the core of the group and generally remain in the same pride from birth until death-although females are occasionally expelled from the pride. As a result of remaining in the same pride throughout their lifetimes, female lions are generally related to one another. Due to this permanence, lion prides are considered to be matriarchal in their social structure.
The Role of Male Lions
Male cubs remain in a pride for about three years, after which they become wandering nomads for about two years until they either take over an existing pride or form a new one around the age of 5.
Some male lions remain nomads for life. These long-term nomadic males rarely reproduce, since most fertile females in a pride are protected from outsiders by its members. On rare occasions, a group of new male lions, usually young nomads, may take over an existing pride; during this kind of takeover, the intruders may try to kill the offspring of other males.
Because the life expectancy for male lions is considerably less than that of females, their tenure within a pride is relatively short. Males are in their prime from about ages 5 to 10. Once they are no longer capable of fathering cubs, they're usually expelled from the pride. Males rarely remain part of the pride for more than three to five years. A pride with older males is ripe for takeover by groups of young nomad males.Wn Xin / EyeEm / Getty Images
Cubs in a given pride are often born near the same time, with the females serving as communal parents. The females suckle one another's young, however, weaker offspring are routinely left to fend for themselves and often die as a result.
Lions usually hunt with other members of their pride. Some experts theorize that it's the hunting advantage a pride offers in the open plains that may have led to the evolution of the pride social structure. Such hunting areas are populated by large prey animals, some of which can weigh as much as 2,200 pounds-making hunting in groups a necessity. (Nomadic lions are more likely to feed on smaller prey weighing as little as 30 pounds.)
A lion pride spends a good deal of time in idleness and sleep, with males patrolling the perimeter to guard against intruders. Within the pride structure, females lead the hunt for prey. The pride gathers to feast after the kill, squabbling among themselves.
While they do not lead the hunt in a pride attack, nomadic male lions are very skilled hunters since they're often forced to hunt small, very swift game. Whether in groups or alone, the lion hunting strategy is generally slow, patient stalking followed by short bursts of speed to attack. Lions do not have great stamina and do not do well in long pursuits.