The lion lives in a family groups called prides: lionesses do most of the hunting and the males defend the territory. Individual lions hunt effectively, but groups are more than twice as successful at catching large prey.
By living in a group, lions achieve a far greater success rate when hunting. They are also able to guard unfinished kills and improve their cubs’ chances of survival. The lion’s immense physical strength places it at the top of the savannah food chain, whether hunting alone or as a team.
The male’s shaggy mane increases his apparent size to help him look more imposing. The lion’s short but powerfully muscled legs are suited to sprinting and bringing down large prey. His hooked claws grasp prey. To keep them sharp, the lion retracts them into protective sheaths. His long canine teeth pierce a victim’s neck or spinal cord.
The lion is usually associated with the savannah grasslands of Africa, where, as the largest predator, it can choose from a wide selection of prey. The grassy plains on which its large prey animals feed provide concealment for the lion, which relies on stealth, followed by a short burst of speed, to hunt. African lion populations also survive in the Kalahari Desert. The lion will venture near villages and farms, preying on domestic livestock.
The lion is one of the most social of all cats. It lives in a pride, which may contain up to 40 members, but usually consists of a single adult male and about six adult females, along with their offspring. There may be smaller subgroups, known as companionships, within the pride, but the large unit is essential for team hunting. The main responsibility of mature males is to protect the pride. They also help define the limits of the pride’s territory by patrolling it and roaring loudly. Lions of either sex spend most of the day up to 20 hours resting or sleeping. After a successful hunt, lions can spend even more time resting, as they won’t need to hunt for several days.
The lion’s diet varies by region and may include medium to large hoofed mammals such as gazelle, impala and zebra. It will also scavenge the kills of hyenas, wild dogs, cheetahs, or leopards. In large prides, hunting is the female's duty, and is undertaken at dusk or at night. The lioness is an expert at stalking and the color of her coat helps conceal her. Hunting alone or in a small family group, a lioness might make a kill in one out of every dozen attempts. A pride of 20 or 30 lionesses, however, can achieve about twice this kill rate.
A female lion is sexually receptive once every 18 to 24 months, but mating itself can take place any time of year. The lioness gives birth to a litter of up to four cubs, each with a thick spotted coat and weighing about 2.0 lbs. The cubs suckle for about six months. At four months, the cubs are accompanying their mother regularly. Living in a pride helps protect the vulnerable cubs from predators. A female cub usually remains with the same pride throughout her life. Male cubs are driven out at about 18 months or after a new litter is born. The young male then roams alone, or joins others to form a bachelor group. If he survives he may form a new pride, or fight with a male to take over his pride. The new male may kill any existing cubs to bring the lionesses rapidly into breeding condition. This strategy ensures that the strongest males get to breed and continue their genetic line.
Competition from humans for grassland has led to a drastic reduction in the lion’s range. Lions now survive in greatest number where humans are sparse.