It may come to you as no surprise that I am a cat person. I LOVE cats, big and small. So today, for this installment of the A to Z Challenge, the Ladies I Love are Lionesses. Lions as a species (Panthera leo) are incredibly majestic creatures and they are interesting in a number of ways. Aside from Sumatran tigers, lions are the largest cats on Earth, with males weighing up to 500 pounds, and females weighing up to 300 pounds. One of the most interesting things about lions is that they live in groups of 3-40 individuals called “prides”, whereas almost all other cats live solitary lives. While the male lions’ primary role is to defend the pride’s territory and father cubs (and sleeping, ahem, up to 20 hours per day…lazy bums…), the female lion plays a much different role. Here are a few reasons why I think female lions are such admirable and fascinating creatures:
Hunting. Female lions do the majority of the hunting for the pride. However, because they are so muscular and large, they are not well suited for long sprints (like cheetahs, for example). Lions live in environments that are fairly open, and it is thought that one of the reasons they evolved to live in groups was so that they could hunt prey that would otherwise see them coming and outrun their would-be predators. However, lionesses are skilled in trickery and found ways of outsmarting their prey by hunting in groups! While lions hunting by themselves capture prey only about 17% of the time, hunting cooperatively nearly doubles the chances of successfully capturing prey. Using a cooperative strategy, a few lionesses will sneak behind the targeted prey (whether its an individual or herd), crouching in the grass so as not to be seen. Then, a couple of other lionesses will run at the prey, chasing them towards the ladies in hiding…but it’s a trap! And even though lions may not be the swiftest predators, they can jump up to 35 feet in one leap, so look out! It’s no surprise that lions working together using this scheme are more successful in their hunts than lions working by themselves.
But after the ladies have managed to capture and kill a prey animal, who do you think gets to eat first? You guessed it – the male lions. They’ll move in on the downed meal, chasing the females away from the kill. Only after the male lions have fed do the females and cubs get to eat, and sometimes there’s not much left. But with a good kill, large lions can eat up to 40 pounds of meat in a single sitting.
Raising Cubs. Besides hunting, another important job of the females is to raise the pride’s cubs. Females will often stay behind from hunting to watch over young cubs, making sure they are safe from potential predators. In fact, lionesses will help raise each others’ cubs, ensuring higher rates of survival among youngsters. Since cooperative hunting results in more frequent and bigger meals, having many mothers to watch over the cubs increases health and growth rates.
Lions are amazing creatures. Unfortunately, habitat loss and an increasing human population is putting them at risk. Lions were once found over most of Africa, southern Europe, and into Asia. Today, however, they are limited to some areas in Africa and a very small game preserve in India’s Gir Forest, which contains only about 250 lions. Lions need a large enough territory to support ample prey to eat, and protection from humans. As human populations encroach on land closer to lion territory, prey populations decrease and lions find themselves having to hunt domesticated animals, which often results in humans killing “problem” lions to protect their livestock. One of the best ways we can protect lions is to preserve and maintain national parks and other refuges that give lions what they need to survive; otherwise, these magnificent animals may continue to decline until they are simply pictures in books that our children read.