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Reproduction by and the development of lions

4 March 2016


Identifying estrus

In the lion, the females differ from that of the other large cats in that there is as yet no evidence that they advertise their impending sexual receptivity either by calling or by increasing their scent-marking. Whether this happens because they do not live alone is uncertain, but there should be less need for such advertising within a close pride unit where the males and females interact regularly. A male seems to be able to determine the sexual receptivity of a female by smelling at her anal region, while her behaviour also indicates her readiness to mate. In a pride system this obviates the need for increased calling or scent-marking. When a male detects that a female is sexually receptive he will stay with her until she is ready to copulate and through her estrus period.



Behaviour during estrus

When she is in estrus a female becomes restless and rolls, twists, turns, walks about and eventually lies down in front of a male which follows her movements closely. When the male attempts to mount her, the female may evade him, or she will growl and snarl at him until eventually allowing him to copulate. As in other cats, a male lion sometimes grasps the female at the back of the neck when copulating. Copulations last for eight to 72 seconds (mean: 21 seconds). Lions copulate repeatedly and in one incident in the Serengeti a nomadic male lion copulated 157 times within five hours.

Estrus usually only lasts for three to four days but it recurs every two to three weeks until the female conceives. Moreover, all the females in a pride may come into estrus simultaneously. Towards the end of estrus a male may lose interest in a female and she may then copulate with other males in a coalition. However, not every male in a collation may get a chance to copulate because the first male to reach a female in estrus will keep her away from other males for as long as possible. Young, old or small males have less chance of copulating.



Coalition of males

The males of large coalitions have more chances of reproducing because such coalitions are more successful in taking over prides, they maintain residence with a pride for longer periods and gain access to more females over their lifetime than single males or those of smaller coalitions. When there are four or more males in a coalition, not all the members may get an opportunity to mate. Since the males in coalitions are usually all related, this system does allow the coalition to perpetuate its genetic input into a population. The length of time that a coalition spends with a pride also varies. In the Serengeti it is usually 26 months or less but in the Etosha National Park it varies from 30 to 48 months. Because all the small cubs in a pride are usually killed by the males when a new coalition takes over a pride (infanticide), this induces simultaneous estrus in the females.



Litter, loss of cubs

When a female loses her litter for any reason she may also come into estrus almost immediately and may conceive again within two weeks of the loss, although the females that lose litters usually conceive again within a mean period of 134 days after litter loss. Partial litter loss does not stimulate estrus and a female that has lost some of her cubs will not mate again until the surviving cubs are 18 months old. However, the cubs remain vulnerable to adult males until they are two years old.

Prides containing three to ten adult females seem to have a better reproductive success than smaller or larger prides which suffer more takeovers from males and causes the death of more than 25 per cent of the cubs. Single females and pairs of females also have high rates of mortality because they may be killed when trying to defend their cubs from infanticide.

The ancient Greek naturalist Pliny believed that the cubs of lions were unformed at birth and Topsell later reported that it was believed that lion cubs came to life three days after birth through the roaring of a male and his breath in their faces. However, Isidorus later wrote that lion cubs do nothing but sleep for the first three days and nights of their lives until the roaring of their father awakens them. Gestation lasts 102 to 115 days and the cubs are born at any time of the year in a secluded den among rocks or in dense grass. Because of synchrony in estrus, most cubs in a pride may be born within a few weeks of one another.

The litter size in the wild is rarely known because the cubs are born in seclusion where they remain for several weeks until they become active. Any mortality during the period of seclusion will therefore not be detected. Mean, known litter sizes vary from 1.7 to 3.3 and litter size remains constant after a female is five years old. It only starts to decline after a female reaches an age of 11 years. Some of the cubs are born with open eyes, but others have closed eyes at birth which open within the first two weeks of life. Milk teeth start to appear after three weeks of life and permanent teeth at an age of a year. The cubs are kept at the den for six to eight weeks while the female hunts for 24 to 48 hour at a time. When the cubs are alone they are completely defenceless and many of them are then killed by large predators, including other lions. A solitary, nomadic female seldom succeeds in raising her young.

The female rejoins the pride when her cubs are two months old to form a nursery group with other females with young cubs while the females without cubs keep apart. The nursery group remains together for the next 18 months and the cubs will suckle from any lactating female if they are given the opportunity to do so. Nevertheless, the females try to reserve their milk for their own cubs. The cubs mainly live on milk in the first six weeks or so of life after which time their mother starts to lead them to kills where they start to eat meat. The cubs do not accompany the pride until they are at least two months old and can keep up with the moving pride. The cubs are fully dependent on the adult lions for food until they are about 16 months old.

At a kill, the smaller cubs are at a disadvantage despite being given access to a kill because they are edged out by larger cubs. In the Serengeti some 28 per cent of all the cubs die of starvation, especially when a pride is highly mobile. Starvation is compounded during the dry season when prey is scarce and water resources are scattered. Young lions only join in a hunt with a pride when they are at least 11 months old, but when they weigh about 50 kg and are 15 months old they regularly hunt with the pride although they may not yet make a kill. Young lions imitate the hunting technique of other pride members and are competent hunters when they are two years old.

Subadult lions that are 22 to 48 months old may still use the range of their natal pride, although most of the males will be independent at an age of 48 months while most of the females remain with their natal prides. When a new coalition of males takes over a pride, the coalition members will evict any subadult males younger than 16 months.



Reproductive potential

The reproductive potential of lions is high and a female typically has her first litter when she is three to four years old. She then has litters until she is 15 years old and can potentially produce 15 cubs in her lifetime, but this is seldom achieved in the wild although cub survival is not affected by the age of a female. Females live longer than males and in the Serengeti some of the females live as long as 18 years although a female in the Cologne Zoo lived until she was almost 30 years old. In the Nairobi National Park, one female lived until she was an estimated 22 years old. A male lion in the Kruger National Park became 16 years old. Lions in captivity that are being fed well have a good chance of a long life.



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

Sunquist, M and F Sunquist 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pages 294 - 297.

article by Prof J du P Bothma



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