The core and stable units of a lion pride are the adult lionesses and they are usually all related to each other. Pride females help with hunting, defending the territory and raising the young. Although pride size may vary considerably (up to 40 individuals in one pride was recorded in the Kruger National Park), the average size in the Kalahari ecosystem is around 11 (of which about four will be adult females).
Darker manes indicate better health, so much so that lionesses in research projects in East Africa when presented with the choice of dark or light-maned males actively chose those with darker manes. There is some evidence that the offspring of dark-maned males stand an increased chance of survival compared to their siblings from light-mane males. A popular misconception is that only the pride females do the hunting. Although not averse to dining on kills made by the lionesses, adult males are very accomplished hunters and are often the key in taking down large, dangerous prey like buffalo and giraffe.
A lioness will typically have two to three cubs that could be born at any time of the year when food is in good supply. The cubs remain hidden for the first few weeks following the birth, after which the lioness introduces them to the rest of the pride. As they approach their second year, young males leave the pride with a lot of coercion from the dominant male or males, while the females usually stay within their pride of birth. From the time they leave the pride until they are strong enough to take over another pride, males will cover huge distances – it’s during this phase that they may team up with other dispersing males to form a coalition as well as honing their hunting and fighting skills.
Like good fathers everywhere, male lions are remarkably tolerant of youngsters in the pride, often allowing them to clamber on and over them with little reaction. Occasionally the play becomes a little bit too rough which then elicits a quick rebuke!
Top-down or bottom-up? Food webs and the health of ecosystems have traditionally been viewed as a bottom-up system with plants keeping the whole system intact. Subsequent research on ecosystems globally is highlighting the crucial role that apex predators (like lions and wolves) play in maintaining healthy and biologically diverse food webs, the implication being that these systems may be driven by the big guys at the top with teeth and claws.
Research along these lines has been termed the “ecology of fear”, and there is still much to be learnt in this emerging field of study. Tragically, lions are threatened throughout most of their former range with few large populations now left.