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Social behaviour of lions

2 February 2016


Patrol range

Most large cats largely live solitary lives in which a dominant male moves through the ranges of several prides of females. Contact between the genders only occurs when the females are in oestrus and pheromone scents transmit this information.

In most cats, each individual hunts and cares for itself, although in some cats adult individuals may meet each other occasionally at large kills, or as they patrol their ranges. However, the social systems of the African and Asiatic lions are exceptions.



Asiatic and African lion

In the Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica the males and females lead separate lives and rarely associate except during mating and at a large kill. The prides are composed of related females, their cubs and subadult males. As in the African lion Panthera leo leo, the females form the core of a pride, and prides usually contain four to five adult females. Nevertheless, some prides contain as few as one and others as many as 11 adult females. The adult males form coalitions of two to six animals which patrol a fiercely defended territory, and they make their own kills without the assistance of any females. One or more females occur within the territory of a single male, or that of one of several coalitions of males. However, the females prefer the riverine forests as habitat while the males prefer the relatively dry, open hilltops. The males patrol ranges of 100 to 140 km2 in size while those of the females are some 50 km2 in size. This is a behavioural difference in addition to the Asiatic lion´s genetic and morphological differences from the African lions.

In the African lions on the Serengeti Plains in East Africa a pride usually consists of two to 18 adult females, their cubs, subadult lions and one to seven adult males. The sex ratio varies regionally, but most populations contain more adult females than males. All the females in a pride are related, form a stable pride core and do most of the hunting and killing of prey. However, the dominant pride male displaces the females, cubs and young lions at a kill to feed first. Breeding coalitions of males compete with each other for access to any female that is in oestrus, but such male coalitions can be dominant for only a few months or for several years before the males are displaced from a pride.



Females and their young

The females and their female young may use the same range for many generations. However, the adult males may either leave the pride voluntarily or more usually are evicted from the pride by a new group of males which take over the pride. Young males most often leave their prides of birth along with male siblings or half-brothers. Nevertheless, when a young lion is the only male in a litter he may join nomadic males from other prides who usually are of his age and size.





Coalition of males

A coalitions of two or three males commonly consist of non-relatives, while larger coalitions only contain relatives. Young, adult lions are nomadic and they scavenge while learning to hunt and avoid attacks by resident males which they may encounter. Upon attaining sexual maturity, a nomadic coalition of males will try to take over a pride which may lead to fierce fights with the resident pride males. Sometimes, male coalitions attempt to take over two adjacent prides. The males that attempt to take over a pride consisting of females only are often repelled by large females with young cubs because the new males will kill all the young cubs of previous males after a successful take-over. Such killing is known as infanticide and all the females will then simultaneously go into oestrus again.



Pride associations

Although the pride is the stable unit of the social system of a lion, this system is flexible. For example, during a prolonged drought in the arid southern Kalahari, the prey density declined to such an extent that the social system of the lions collapsed, causing the pride males and females to abandon their ranges to become nomadic and travel well outside their former ranges. Unrelated females also co-operated in hunts and associations changed frequently.

Even when the drought eased and the environmental conditions became more favourable again these females did not return to their former ranges. The new prides that then formed contained unrelated females.

When lions of both genders were once cropped extensively in the Kruger National Park, females from different prides joined to form new prides, while male coalitions accepted additional males after joining a pride. Where lions were hunted heavily in Zambia, the coalitions of males were small and their ranges did not cover the entire range of the pride which they had joined. Consequently, the females mated with males from different prides and a pride male also accepted additional males into his range.



Social system

The social system of an African lion is also not rigid when it forages for food because the members of a pride are frequently scattered in small groups over the range, and they split and reform continually and amicably as in the primates. Some of the groups may form close associations and can then be regarded as sub-prides that have little interaction with the other pride members. However, each sub-pride uses different parts of the larger range. In addition, some individual pride members constantly lag behind during a hunt or do not participate in communal hunting and expelling intruders at all. This shows a degree of individual selfishness which makes the social behaviour of lions complex. Especially the males may make excursions away from the cores of their ranges at times, but the females more often stay within their ranges.

In the Serengeti, the range size of a pride is largely set by the prey resource that is available during the leanest time of the year and it may shrink and expand seasonally, but it is often correlated with the lowest abundance of prey during the leanest time of the year. Lions that live in the woodlands have smaller ranges than those that live on the plains, and the prides in the woodlands are 40 per cent larger than those on the plains. Environmental differences also create regional differences in range and pride size. The highest recorded lion density was in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania where there were some 100 lions in an area of 181 km2 at one time.

As social animals, lions typically maintain higher densities than other types of wild cat. This is true even for the Asiatic lions which have to compete for prey with the tiger Panthera tigris. In African lions, there is some degree of spatial overlap between adjacent, large ranges, but overlaps are virtually absent as the ranges become smaller. At high lion densities the competition for resources cause male lions to patrol their range boundaries regularly for intruding males, while pride females defend their hunting ranges, waterholes and denning sites against intruding females.



Photo from: www.flickr.com/photos/willievs/3332372860

Scent-mark of ranges

Both genders scent-mark their ranges by spray-urinating onto bushes or tree trunks and scraping the ground with their hind feet through urine that is sprayed on a grass tuft or a low shrub.

When a specific lion in a pride scent-marks it often induces other lions in the pride to do so too, frequently in the same place.

Along regular routes of travel some landmarks are scent-marked repeatedly.




Lions are vocal and although roaring is common they have some 12 different calls as they also snarl, growl(play sound clip), hiss, meow, grunt and puff with various variations. Puffing is used during close-up friendly contact and also occurs in leopards but not in other types of cat. However, it is still uncertain whether lions purr as other cats do. Both genders roar(play sound clip) and this is believed to be a form of territorial display that acts as a spacing mechanism to avoid confrontation, as a way to ensure pride cohesion and to facilitate making contact. Lions roar most at dawn, dusk and midnight when they are most active. However, the roar of a large male lion is deeper and louder than that of a female. Lions roar while standing, and such roaring often stimulates others in a pride to roar in synchrony, with the one member of a pride roaring directly after another one. This presumably increases the effectiveness of roaring and may stimulate neighbouring lions to roar too. The roar of a lion is audible to the human ear for some 8 km but lions can most probably hear a roaring lion over much longer distances.


Skinner, J D & C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 390 - 396.

Sunquist, M and F Sunquist 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp 285 - 304.

article by Prof J du P Bothma



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