Lions are a major symbol of wild Africa. They have been worshipped by African tribes for their strength and beauty. Lions are the only big cats that live in large groups. Also, they have the loudest roar of any cat, which can be heard for up to five miles!
Where do lions live?
Despite the nickname King of the jungle, lions do not live in the jungle. They live in a flat grassy plains called savannas; they usually have a certain place in the savannas where they like to stay. In ancient times, lions roamed nearly every continent. Today, they can commonly be found across central and southern Africa. There is also a small population in the Gir forest of India on the continent of Asia. Also, most people know lions as "The King of the Beasts" today.
What do lions look like?
Lions have tawny, or yellowish brown, fur. They grow to a length of about 10 feet (3 m) and stand about 4 feet (1.2 m) tall. Male lions are larger than the lionesses (females), weighing as much as five men or about 550 lb (250 kg). The more slender lioness usually weighs about as much as two and a half men or 400 lb (180 kg).
Adult males can be recognized by the furry mane that runs around the heads and down the neck. For some lions the mane even runs along the belly. There is no other big cat with such a dramatic difference in appearance between males and females.
Both lions and lionesses have tufts on the end of their tails, something no other cat has. If you could touch a male lion's tail, you would feel a sharp bone tucked into the tail tuft. One old legend claims that lions would use the tail spur to whip themselves into a frenzy before fighting.
What is a pride?
Lions are the most social cats, living in large groups called prides. Prides are made up of one to three related adult males, along with as many as thirty females and cubs. The females are usually closely related to each other, being a large family of sisters and daughters. Lion prides act much like packs of wolves or dogs, animals surprisingly similar to lions (but not other big cats) in behavior, and also very deadly to their prey.
The male lion is much stronger than the female. This makes him an able protector, especially when a group of females are hunting and the cubs are at risk of marauders, such as hyenas. Male lions use their muscles and fighting skills to guard the land and keep enemies away. Sometimes those enemies are other lions.
In prides, cubs are cared for not just by their mothers but by other adult females, as well. Often, one or two lionesses (female lions) will stay with the cubs while the other females hunt. If a cub becomes an orphan, it is common for it to be cared for by other females who are related to it, perhaps by a lioness who is an aunt or older sister.
According to a study on sciencedirect.com, "male lions were frequent and successful hunters. The main prey species of all male group types, but particularly nonterritorial males, was buffalo. By contrast, females preyed more frequently on the most abundant medium-sized ungulates, such as wildebeest." There are photographs of both male and female lions hunting at http://www.laocomics.com/blog/category/animals/.
When young male lions reach the age of one year, they are chased from the prides they are born into by the older male lions. If the lead male is elderly, the young male, either alone or with male siblings, will sometimes fight to take over the leadership of the pride. If the young males leave the pride, they become "rogue" males. They travel alone or may partner with other rogues, perhaps brothers. Having a partner makes it easier for a rogue lion to survive and eventually win a pride of his own. These rogue lions are often found scavenging food killed by smaller predators, such as hyenas or jackals, which can be chased away. Rogue lions hunt for themselves until they are able to take over a pride of their own!
What do lions eat, and how do they catch their prey?
Lions eat large prey, such as gazelles, antelopes, zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, and buffalo. They have been known to take down even elephants, but then only with all of the adults of the pride participating in the kill. Even elephants dread lions. When food becomes scarce, lions will hunt smaller prey or sometimes eat the kills of other animals.
Most prey animals can run much faster than the average lion. Therefore, lions hunt in fairly well organized groups and stalk, or sneak up on, their prey. They may try to surround them first, then make a swift, sudden charge from the tall grass. The grass where lions live is not short and green but grows very tall and is a light brownish color most of the time. The lions' fur is the same color as this grass, making it difficult for other animals to see them. Coloring that helps to hide an animal or thing is called "camouflage".
Females do most of the hunting and work in groups although, if she has to, a single lioness is able to hunt on her own. Male lions are actually more capable hunters than females but they usually focus more on protecting the pride. Lions might spend hours stalking prey but the actual kill is made in just minutes. After a kill is made, the females let out low roars. This tells the pride to join them for a meal. Adult males eat first, followed by females, and then cubs.
To avoid the dangerous heat of the mid-day sun, lions usually hunt at night when the dim light helps to keep them hidden from their prey. Lions have very good night vision so the darkness does not pose a problem for them. Animals that are active at night like lions are called nocturnal creatures. Lions can eat 69kg of meat a day!
- A male lion's roar can be heard up to 5 miles away.
- The hunting grounds for a pride of lions can range from 8 to 150 square miles.
- The largest lion on record was almost 11.8 feet long and weighed nearly 900 pounds.
- Lions rarely eat an entire kill. Hyenas and vultures finish the rest.
- A lion can run as fast as 50 mph for short distances and can leap a distance of more than 30 feet.
- There are only a quarter the number of lions in Africa as there were just 40 years ago.
- A lion's eyesight is five times better than a human's eyesight, and it can hear prey that is more than a mile away.
- It may take up to 4 hours for a pride of lions to finish eating.
- A male lion eats first, even though the females actually catch the prey.
- After eating, a thirsty lion may drink for as long as 20 minutes.
- Lions were once thought to be magical creatures and were worshiped as gods. Domestic cats replaced lions in that role, especially in Egypt, because they were much safer and easier to care for.
- There can be up to 40 members in a pride with over half of them being cubs and young adults.
- Females will often stay with the pride their entire life, while young males are driven out.
- A lion eats 36 kg of meat a day.
- When a male lion gets old, its mane may fall off.
- The lion is the only social predator among the Big Cats.
- Lions can't climb as well as leopards.
- Lions can steal food from other predators such as cheetahs.
For more information
- Wikipedia: Lion
- http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/t-lion.html - hear the sound of a roaring lion.
- http://www.tigertouch.org/barbary/index.html - learn about the rare Barbary lions of North Africa.