Africa; Lions, the Big Cat

Please consider all images as copyrighted – thank you. Contact me for use… DEClapp

Lions are large. They are smaller than cows it is true, but for an animal with the size and attitude of a lion it should be considered to be very large. They have bulk, strength, teeth, claws, brains, and teamwork. Like pretty much all animals there are two sexes, and like most wild animals there are rather distinct roles that each sex will play. The blog posts that will follow, in a scattered fashion I’m sure, will deal with lions by sexes, by skills, by territories, by behavior, by size and shape, and through human history. Lions are feared and revered in most cultures that have associated with them. The Romans collected them and the Maasai learned to kill them.

This first lion post is about males because I was looking at the differences between bears (from a recent Alaska post) and lions and thinking about teeth, diet, adaptation, hunger, and other stuff. Anyway, lions popped into my head – so here is a blog post on male lions. No animal or plant or anything really, lives alone as an individual. No man is an island in the real world. So it is with lions; there is no separate creature functioning as a “male lion” or a “female lion(ess)”; rather it is simply a way to start on lions and continue posting on with predators. As these posts continue you will see that lions are the most social cat of all cats and that males, females, young, territory, hunting, and family life are complex; and though some roles are specific to a sex or age group, lion life is very much integrated with those other lions in the area.

Generally speaking males are large and solid. They can weigh up to 550 pounds, but generally weigh 375-470 pounds; females are 20-30% lighter. This sexual dimorphism is unusual in cats. The mane is a characteristic of male lions and varies greatly in color and size. Some research in Tanzania has shown that females favor a larger maned male with a mane consisting of darker hair. This condition is usually found in the older and larger of the male lions and the research goes further by saying that these males are often more successful in male-male confrontations. Whatever the reason for the mane, most populations of lions have males with manes though some regions have males with short or minimal manes. The growth of the mane seems to be both genetic and related to an individuals production of testosterone.


I mentioned that male lions can be dethroned by newly arrived males looking for a female group (a pride) and a territory; these are the male-male confrontations that cause a nighttime of roaring and fighting. The roaring and the characteristic spraying on bushes will increase during any confrontation and the males will eventually come to blows. If the new consortium consists of four males will often successfully oust a pair of males from their territory. The new males will then eliminate (yes, that means kill) the young of the previous males and then mate with the females. This sort of interaction is not uncommon and it is very disruptive to breeding success. In order for lions to breed successfully and raise the young to adulthood it is necessary for both the females and the males to rather young (in breeding years) and strong and vigorous in defending their territories.  In those cases there might be two or even three litters of young born and raised before age and warfare causes their group strength to wane.

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The two males above are older, tired, and have been defeated in male-male contests. You can tell by the look and posture that they are no longer king of the beasts. With broken teeth and spirit they will not do much for the rest of their lives except try to avoid other lions. When they enter the territory of another group they will be chased and battered again – and then again. Sooner or later they will be killed or starve to death as they wander the plains trying to keep a low profile.

On one safari, I think we were in Kenya, the group boarded a very small plane to fly from a remote area back toward town. From just behind me I heard a kind and sweet little old lady mutter “dammit, get up and kill something you lazy @#%&”. I looked out the window and there was a male lion sprawled in the grass at the edge of the dirt runway. We had seen dozens of lions – but they were all sleeping or otherwise lazing around. For a ferocious beast with great strength and a reputation for mayhem lions are perhaps the least showy of the African cats. Most of the wild cats are nocturnal, excepting the diurnal cheetah. So it should be no surprise that they sleep in the day time. But as the lady implied; they sleep all day!

It is always nice when the drivers take pictures to show their families. Just like most of the world Africa is losing its interconnected wild spaces. Migrations, territories, and water sources can be, and are being, impacted by increasing human populations and agriculture. The drivers’ children are not likely to see a lion in or near their community. But when a lion feels at home, as this male demonstrates – he most certainly is at home! The logo on the Land Cruiser is for the Smithsonian Journeys travel  program. 
On a hot windless buggy day the lighter and more lithe female lions may take to the trees to find some peace and perhaps a breeze. But a big male lion does something like this on very rare occasions. I have watched hundreds of lions for hundreds of hours and have seen this only once. This male was with a receptive female and perhaps he was showing off for her or for the other male nearby. Most older males wouldn’t think of climbing a tree. However, as with everything there are exceptions – one population of lions, in Manyara National Park, is known for hanging out in trees, including the males.
This is one of my favorite images. There were four males in a dry creek bed when a small pride of ladies walked by. The scent must have been stimulating as all the males got up, growled at each other, and proceeded to spit and spat for about ten minutes. I got the impression they were sorting themselves out as one of the females was coming into oestrus. They were all rather pale and all in the prime of life. It was a grand time for all … except for perhaps numbers three and four. This male walked straight past us without any acknowledgement at all – he was in a macho game that we were not part of.

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