The Science of Lion Prides

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Although the paper addresses Tanzanian lions, this is a photograph of a Namibian lion
Starting some years ago, we began to hear about revisions of the standard models of lion behavioral biology coming out of Craig Packer’s research in the Serengeti. One of the most startling findings, first shown (if memory serves) as part of a dynamic optimization model and subsequently backed up with a lot of additional information, is the idea that lions do not benefit by living in a group with respect to hunting. They live in groups despite the fact that this sociality decreases hunting effectiveness. This is a classic case of “but wait, I can see it with my own eyes!” vs. data.

ResearchBlogging.orgSome of the most recent work done by Packer’s team has just been highlighted in a pretty nice write up by Mattt Walker in the BBC, representing a paper just coming out. The most interesting finding: Male lions kill (or attempt to kill) females from neighboring prides in order that their own pride obtains numerical superiority in pursuit of territorial competition.

In the study, authored by Anna Mosser and Craig Packer and coming out in Animal Behavior, the authors analyzed 38 years of data collected across 46 prides of lions in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. They looked for factors affecting female fitness. They found that competition between prides for territories directly affected female fitness. The largest prides obtained and held the best territories, and having neighboring prides negatively affected female fertility and individual female survival.


(a) Per capita adult female reproductive success versus total number of adult neighbours and (b) average adult female monthly mortality and wounding rates versus number of male neighbours (N = 115, non-edge prides only, numbers at the base of each bar denote sample sizes). [Figure 2 from the paper]

Interestingly, when prides had neighboring prides, females were found alone very rarely, suggesting a reaction to increased risk of inter-territorial fighting.

The level of inter-pride territorial behavior was inversely correlated with pride age. In other words, prides that had recently split into two, and were thus genetically more related through recent kinship, fought less.

An important aspect of territorial behavior that is parallel to that found in chimpanzees was also noted, regarding the role of males:

Overall, males were more important in group-territorial competition than expected, and female mortality and wounding rates were significantly associated with male neighbours, suggesting that males may use lethal aggression to tip the balance of power in favour of their prides.

Lions are odd because of all the living cats, only they are socially gregarious. The research in this paper suggests that simple numerical advantage aids in territorial competition and has shaped the evolution of lion social behavior.

I would add the following conjectures: It is unlikely to have more than one large territorial cat species common in a given region, and herds (of prey) make group living possible for lions (but not tigers).

This paper is a richly done project. As stated, years of research are involved, and the paper itself is a detailed statistical analysis of these data. It will become a classic for those reading in mammalian behavioral biology. My only complaint with it is that it was not published in an Open Access journal.

Mosser, A., & Packer, C. (2009). Group territoriality and the benefits of sociality in the African lion, Panthera leo Animal Behaviour DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.04.024

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10 thoughts on “The Science of Lion Prides

  1. I seem to remember that common house cats have a social structure very similar to lions. It must be true I saw it on the science channel.

  2. Why would the principles used in the paper not apply equally well (with some numbers adjusted) to primates, once they become strongly predatorial? It might have become inadvisable for female primates to be out alone, too.

    I wonder, does preventing females by threat from straying have much the same result as actually killing them? Because the former is the signal that affects selection.

  3. For those interested, yes, domestic cats(Felis silvestris catus) are, in some ways, much like lions. Two females with kittens will sometimes join forces,if they “know” each other. There’s always a “milk bar” and both sets of kittens have a better chance of surviving this way, because the mothers have better opportunities to feed themselves. Cats in any given neighborhood, of both sexes, may form loose “associations”, though there is often a “head cat”(usually, but not always, a male), and they have overlapping “territories” that they can “time share”. They may also act “cooperatively” on occasion to “deal” with problems such as bothersome dogs. I’ve seen this happen, and I’ve seen two females raising kittens together. There have been several studies on this.
    Anne G

  4. Lions are such great creatures.They are beautiful in their own ways and i must say that if they weren’t harmful to human life,many people would be keeping them as pets.But since that is not the issue,then they shouldn’t not kept.Thanks for the information and great site.

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