World Lion Day - August 10th

World Lion Day - August 10th

Posted on Tuesday 6th August 2019

Categories: Wildlife

Amazing animals: Lions are excellent mothers, and they all enjoy affectionate interactions

Lions are truly majestic animals. At the top of the food chain they have no natural predators. Despite this, their numbers are plummeting. 

Lions are the most sociable of all big cats. In fact, they are the only cats who live in groups. These groups are called prides and are comprised of around 15 individuals. All of the lionesses in a pride are related, and the female cubs tend to stay in the pride once they are adults. The male cubs however, tend to leave the pride to find a pride of their own once they reach maturity.  

Dominant males lead the pride and will defend the territory and the females from other males. It is the females who do most of the hunting though, and they will work together to take down prey that are often faster and sometimes bigger than them. 

Like all mammals, lion cubs depend on their mothers for everything as they grow up and they form an attachment very quickly. Fortunately, female lions make excellent mothers, and they protect their cubs from a variety of dangers. 

Lions make incredible mothers

Lion cubs are at particular risk of unfamiliar males, as they will often kill them to encourage their mother to be ready to mate again. Lion mothers have developed some clever strategies to help protect their cubs from such males. Researchers in the UK and the USA have studied free-ranging populations of African lions to understand how much they can tell from another lion’s roar. They tested mothers by playing roars from different lions and observed their reactions. When the roar came from an unfamiliar male, the lioness responded with immediate agitation, and quickly moved the cubs away. Whereas, when the roar came from either the cub’s father, or from unfamiliar females, the mother responded differently. When it was the cub’s father, the mother remained relaxed, and when it was an unfamiliar female, the mother approached the loudspeaker. Their findings suggest that mother lions are able to effectively distinguish potential threats from another lion’s vocalisations, and that they can respond quickly and appropriately to protect their cubs.  

Strength in numbers

Another strategy mother lions have to protect their cubs, is to live in groups with other females. Female lions living in groups are more successful at defending their cubs when confronted with potentially infanticidal males, compared with singleton mothers. Researchers have since found that female lions who roar together also deter potential infanticidal males. Female lions roar as a form of long-distance communication with pride-mates, and to defend their territory against others. When doing so however, they risk attracting unfamiliar males who may kill their cubs. One study demonstrated that not only are males attracted to female and not male roars, but that they modify their behaviour depending on the number of lions roaring. Males are more likely to seek out the roaring lions when it is a single, female lion, and were more reluctant when there were three females roaring. These findings suggest that by roaring in chorus, females are able to considerably reduce the risk of being confronted with an unfamiliar male. This incredible strategy helps to protect their cubs, and it shows us just how intelligent lions are.

Affectionate lions

Researchers studying captive lions found that lions are more like us than we think. The researchers from Japanese universities studied a group of captive African lions in a zoo in Tokyo. They found that the lions all regularly exchanged physical, affectionate contact with one another, and got pleasure from the positive interactions, in the same way that we humans enjoy a hug with a loved one. These affectionate behaviours are thought to help strengthen bonds and the pride structure itself. The male and female lions were also found to show affection differently. Males would prefer to rub heads with other lions, whereas females tended to lick one another. The researchers suggest that the lionesses chose to lick one another as an extension of their maternal behaviour. Whereas, the head-rubbing performed by males may be a way of sharing group odours.  

Lions really are amazing animals

Lions in captivity

Many thousands of lions are used in circuses and in the tourism industry, forced through fear and punishment into performing meaningless tricks for entertainment. Many more are housed in poor quality conditions within zoos. These individuals often spend extensive amounts of time in social isolation. Lions are intelligent and wide-ranging animals, and many captive facilities, with their space limitations and commercial priorities, cannot provide the environment they require. As a result, lions are prevented from expressing their natural behaviours and their diverse physical, social, behavioural and psychological needs are not met. 

In the case of social animals, not having social interactions can be detrimental to the animal's development. These interactions and socializing help to develop emotional stability and flexibility for the span of the animal's life. Early social isolation can have a series impact on brain development and functioning. Social animals require time with family members to allow them to develop the necessary social skills they will require throughout their lives.  Animals separated from their mothers at an early age or raised in an inappropriately unstimulating environment are much more likely to develop behavioural problems and stereotypy as they age. Artificial rearing can disrupt this natural process and often results in socially maladjusted animals. 

Social animals kept in captivity must be provided with opportunities to develop appropriate species-specific social relationships. Social groupings should resemble those observed in the wild to facilitate feeding, grooming, social, territorial, and courtship behaviors.

One interesting study has actually shown that lions are entirely unsuitable to life in captivity, compared with other carnivorous species who can at least adapt a little. In the wild, lions have one of the largest home ranges of all large carnivores. This means that when they are caged, lions will pace more than other animals5. Pacing in captive animals is not a positive behaviour; it is a poor replacement for their natural ranging behaviours7. Cooped up, these lions will become frustrated at not being able to exhibit their natural behaviours, and the result is often the performance of stereotypic behaviours such as pacing. This is not only heart-breaking to watch but it is a clear sign that an animal is not coping with their environment.

Lion conservation

Three-quarters of African lion populations are in decline. With only around 20,000 in the wild, they are now officially classified as ‘vulnerable’. The main threats to lions are habitat loss and increased conflict with local communities. Lions are top predators in their environment, whether that’s grasslands, desert or open woodland. It means that they play a crucial role in keeping a healthy balance of numbers among other animals, especially herbivores like zebra and wildebeest – which in turn influences the condition of grasslands and forests.


Visit our member organisation Born Free's website for more details on how you can help conserve lions in the wild