Lions are unusual among cats for their habit of living in groups. A pride consists of 2 to 12 adult females and their cubs. All of the females are related: sisters, mothers, aunts, and cousins. Born into a pride, a female will stay in it for life, although a large pride may split into smaller ones. Pride females care for cubs together, hunt and eat together, and aggressively defend their hunting grounds and water holes from other prides. Equally important, pride females must often defend their cubs from groups of males.
Unlike females, male cubs are driven from the pride when they are between two and four years old. If they are lucky, they leave with brothers and cousins; if not, they team up with unrelated males. These groups of two to six males are called coalitions. The goal of a coalition is to join a pride of females to mate and have young. This usually involves chasing off the coalition currently in residence with a pride, although resident males do not leave willingly. Bloody combat may take place, with the larger of the competing coalitions generally winning the pride.
These periods of change spell trouble for pride females and their young. When new males take over, they try to kill the cubs, which were fathered by males in the ousted coalition. Statistics show that invading male lions kill as many as one-quarter of all lion cubs. When a female loses her cubs, she is willing to mate sooner with the new males. However, females vigorously try to defend their cubs. One on one, a female lion is no match for a much larger male lion. But by fighting together, pride females are sometimes able to save their cubs.
These violent exchanges of male ownership of a pride take place every two to four years. Between these exchanges, social relations between males, females, and young are fairly peaceful. Lions spend long days sleeping, for up to 20 hours. Social bonds between pride members are reinforced with contact behaviors such as cheek rubbing and with vocalizations.
When a female lion is in estrus, a recurring state in which the female is receptive to sexual activity, she mates repeatedly with all of the coalition males. After a gestation of 110 days, she gives birth to one to four young in a secluded place away from the group. The mother introduces the cubs to the pride when they are about eight weeks old. Very often, several females give birth at about the same time, and they share the duties of protecting and nursing the cubs. Mothers nurse for up to 8 months, although they begin to take cubs to eat at animal kills when they are as young as 3 months old. At about 11 months of age, cubs start learning to hunt with the pride. It will take several years of practice before the young lions become accomplished hunters. Females take care of their young until they are about two, when the mother is ready to produce a new litter.
With no direct role in cub care, male lions, when they are not sleeping, patrol the boundaries of their large territory, leaving scent marks of urine and other secretions that warn off intruders. Males in a coalition roar together to signal their strength, to proclaim ownership of a territory, and to intimidate potential rival coalitions. Males try to maintain ownership of their pride as long as possible, because males without prides are males that do not live very long.
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