Explaining Lion Families

Lions are uniquely social. No other member of the cat family lives in groups. But are prides the equivalent of a lion family? Or are they lion social groups? More of a cohesive community? Read on to find out.

Big Cats Big Cats Nature
22 April 2022

Do lions live in families? The answer, in a sense, is yes. Of all the cats, big and small, only lions are considered social animals. They live communally, in lion social groups called prides, which is the collective term for a group of lions. Prides are certainly family units of a sort and, like any family, lion families have their own unique dynamic.

Lion Families: Part of the Pride

Family of African Lions (Photo: Riaanvdb via iStock)

The average lion pride has around 15 members, of which just two or three tend to be males. The vast majority of the pride is made up of lionesses and their cubs.

However, lion prides are not set groups, but rather dynamic entities. They operate on a fusion-fission model. In other words, the size and makeup of the group changes over time. In fact, it is more a set of groups that come together and break apart.

Coalitions

A pride of lions watch the horizon (photo: Tommy_McNeeley via iStock)

Male lions form the moving parts of a pride property. A group or “coalition” of male lions will join new lion families by ousting their predecessors. They’ll then remain there for months, maybe years. But they will eventually be ousted by other coalitions.

For the sake of genetic diversity, male cubs are also temporary members, leaving at two or three years-old to form their own pride with unrelated females. They will usually form a coalition with other members of their original pride, but can also group with unrelated males. Together, these male groups roam in search of mates and will work together to take over prides from other coalitions.

Lion Queens

Lionesses are the true core and leaders of any pride. What’s more, all of the female members of a pride are related as sisters, mothers and cousins. The mature females stay together for life, usually recruiting their daughters to join them. They share strong bonds and protect both each other and one another’s offspring.

Female lions work together in most aspects of day-to-day life. They breed at the same time and form “creches” where they all care for the pride’s cubs. The same applies to nursing, with lionesses feeding cubs other than just their own.

Gender Roles

A beautiful Lioness running (Photo: GP232 via iStock)

Teamwork is something of a cornerstone of lion family life. Lions tend to divide jobs between male and female members of the pride. Females are the primary hunters. They can hunt smaller creatures individually, but work together to take down wildebeest, zebras and other larger prey. The males are defenders of the pride. They scent, mark and roar as well as fight off other male lions that try to take over.

That’s not to say that these roles are set in stone. Females scent and mark and defend their family, especially from other lionesses. And males do hunt.

Strength In Numbers

Pride on the prowl in the early morning (Photo: pilesasmiles vis iStock)

The traditional view is that lions form prides to hunt together. That hunting is easier and safer as a group. This is certainly true, but it also means sharing food. What’s more, individual lions can hunt alone for smaller animals. So, there is more to lion families than splitting the bill for lunch.

Another valuable advantage is defence. There is safety in numbers. For example, lions roar to signal and claim their territory. Researchers have found that other lions can determine roughly how many roars they hear at once, meaning they can calculate the odds of winning any given fight. Therefore, the more voices a pride has, the more effective the deterrent to attack.

Pride Areas - Home is Where the Territory Is

A lion lounging in his natural habitat (Photo: Arthit Premprayot via iStock)

Defending their territory or “pride area” is one of the prime reasons for lions grouping together. They are extremely territorial and prides will keep their territory for generations, passing it down the line. This is not surprising given that territory is so crucial to their survival.

Lions are powerful, but low on stamina. They tend to move or act in short sharp bursts and stake out spots waiting for prey rather than searching for it. So their territory must offer them easy access to all the things they need, namely water, food and shelter. Once they have it, a lion family works together to keep it.

Group Think

A big yawn! (Photo: barbaraaaa via iStock)

The lion family that stays together, yawns together. That was the conclusion of one study that found that certain behaviours were infectious amongst groups of lions. These included roaring, grooming and yawning.

Choosing Your Family

They say you can’t choose your family. This isn’t quite true in the case of lions. Both males and females can choose to change prides. And although around 70% of females stay where they were born, males are transitory. Nevertheless, the answer to those wondering if lions live in families, is yes. They may shift and change, but from loyalty to blood lines, prides bear all the hallmarks of families.

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