And the Answer is…
Lioness! A female lion is called a lioness. It is the lionesses who do most of the predating and hunting for their pride. As they are swifter, more agile, and smaller than males encumbered by the conspicuous and heavy manes that cause overheating in exertion, lionesses make for more effective hunters. They have a deep-chested, muscular body with a short and round head. They have rounded ears, and their tails have a hairy tuft at their end. The males are around 72 to 82 inches (184 to 208 cm) in head-to-body height and are bigger than the females who are 63 to 72 inches (160-184 cm) in height. They are sexually dimorphic beings, and the adult lions sport a prominent mane.
They form groups known as pride and are a social species. A pride of a lion would consist of some adult lions, related lionesses, and their cubs. Groups of lionesses generally hunt together. They mainly prey on large ungulates. Lions are keystone and apex predators, even though some lions also scavenge on chance and are also known for hunting humans. However, the species typically would not go for human flesh.
The Body Structure
Lions and lionesses usually have the light buff, silvery grey, dark brown, or yellowish-grey fur. Generally, their underparts are paler in colour. A newly born lion’s body is covered with dark spots that fade away when the cub starts growing and reaches adulthood. However, you can still often see the faint spots on their underparts and legs. Lions are the only members of the cat family that exhibit obvious sexual dimorphism. The male lions have a prominent mane that grows backwards and downwards, covering almost the entire head, chest, shoulders, and neck.
A typical mane would be brownish in colour with a tinge of black, rust, and yellow hairs. Their heads are broader than that of the female lions (lionesses). Every lion has a tail with a dark and hairy tuft at the end. The tail, in some lions, hides an approximately 0.20 inches (5 mm) of long and hard “spur” or “spine,” which is formed from the fused, final sections of the tail bone.
The Skull of a Lion
The spur has functions that are yet to be known. The hairy tuft is not present at birth. It develops when the cub is around 5 1/2 months old. You can readily identify it by the time it is seven months old. Out of all the living felid beings, lions are rivalled just by the tigers in height, weight, and length at the shoulder. A lion’s skull is pretty similar to that of a tiger. However, the frontal region is generally more flattened and depressed, with wider nasal openings and a shorter postorbital area than those found in tigers. As the two species’ skulls have many variations, it is just the structure of their lower that can be used to indicate the species quite accurately.
Where Are They Found?
Usually, lions live in savannas and grasslands but are not seen in dense forests. They are generally more diurnal as compared to other big cats. However, on persecution, they adapt to becoming active during the night as well as at twilight. In the Neolithic Age, lions inhabited South and Western Asia, Southeast Europe, and Africa. However, it is unfortunate that today, their numbers have declined to fragmented populations within sub-Saharan Africa. There is a critically endangered population of lions in western India. The IUCN Red List has listed it as ‘vulnerable’ since 1996 due to a decline in its numbers in African countries by around 43% since the early 1990s.
Their numbers are untenable outside the designated protected regions. Even though the cause of the reduction is yet to be completely understood, conflicts with humans and habitat loss are undoubtedly the primary causes for concern.
The Diet of Lions
Lions are generally hypercarnivores and are known for their wide prey spectrum. Their prey consists primarily of mammals, particularly ungulates, weighing 420 to 1,210 lb (190-550 kg). They have a preference for plains zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, African buffalo, and gemsbok. They also prey on warthogs depending on their availability. However, they are below the weight range preferred by lions. In India, the most common wild prey of lions are chital and sambar deer, and domestic livestock contributes to their diet.
Usually, they avoid hippopotamus, rhinoceroses, fully grown adult elephants, along with small prey such as monkeys, hare, hyrax, and dik-dik. Unusual prey animals include small reptiles as well as porcupines. Lions can also kill other predators like spotted hyenas, cheetah, leopards but rarely eat them.
Their Hunting Skills
Young lions start displaying stalking traits when they are around three months old. However, the young ones do not take part in hunting until they grow up to at least a year. Then, they start hunting effectively from the age of two. Single lions can bring down wildebeest and zebra, while the bigger prey such as giraffes and buffaloes are riskier.
In Chobe National Park, people have observed large pride preying on African bush elephants, which are about 15 years of age in exceptional cases. Most of their hunting victims are sub-adults and calves. Each lioness holds a favoured position in their groups while they are in their typical hunts. They either stalk prey over the “wing,” then attack, or move a small distance within the center of their group to attack the target escaping from other lionesses. As opposed to lionesses, the male lions attached to pride don’t generally participate in group hunting. However, some evidence suggests that males can be as successful as females.
Typically, they are solo hunters ambushing prey in smaller bushlands. Many attacks take place close to some cover or during the night. The attack of a lion is short yet powerful. They try to catch their prey by a fast rush followed by the final leap. Usually, the prey is pulled down by the rum and killed by one strangling bite towards its throat. Lions also use their jaws to enclose their prey’s nostrils and mouth to kill them.
The Behavioral Traits of the Species
Lions love spending most of their time resting. They remain inactive for almost twenty hours every day. Even though they can be active during any time, a lion’s activities usually peak after dusk time with a session of defecating, grooming, and socializing. These intermittent bursts of activities continue up till dawn. It is at dawn when hunting mostly takes place. On average, lions spend two hours every day walking and a little less than an hour eating.
The species is not really known for its stamina. For example, the heart of a lioness has just 0.57% of her physical weight. When it comes to males, it is 0.45%. On the other hand, a hyena’s heart has close to 1% of the body weight. Hence, lions run quickly, just in short bursts and require to be near their prey to start an attack. Lions take advantage of factors that reduce visibility.
Consuming the Prey
Lions typically devour their prey right at the location of their hunt. However, sometimes they also drag huge prey into cover. They are most likely to squabble overkills, and this is true particularly in the case of males. When there is a shortage of food, cubs suffer the most, but otherwise, all the pride members consume their fill. It includes crippled and old lions, which can survive on leftovers. Pride members more likely to share large kills. An adult lioness needs an average of around 11 lb (5 kg) of meat every day, while the males need around 15 lb (7 kg).
Lions are known for gorging themselves and eating up to 66 lb (30 kg) of food in just one session. If it fails in consuming all of its kills, it takes a break and rest for a couple of hours. Then, it gets back to eating. On hot summer days, the pride members retreat to shade where one or two male lions stand guards. They defend their hunt from scavengers such as hyenas and vultures.
How does a Lion Reproduce?
Mostly, a lioness reproduces by the time it is four years of age. Lions do not have a specific mating time of the years. The females of the species are polyestrous. Similar to other cats, the penis of a lion has spines that point backward. When the penis is withdrawn, the walls of the lioness’s vagina are raked by the spines. It may cause ovulation. When on heat, females can mate with multiple males and not just one.
A lion’s generation length is around seven years. The gestation period, on average, is of about 110 days. Pride lionesses usually synchronize their reproductive cycles with the suckling and communal rearing of the cubs. The little one indiscriminately suckles from any or every nursing female in the pride. It is advantageous to synchronize the births as the young ones grow up to be around the same size with an equal chance to survive. The older cubs do not dominate the sucklings. It takes around six to seven months for weaning.
The Life Cycle of a Lion
The female takes refuge in a secluded den where she gives birth to a little of one to four cubs. The den can be a cave, a reed-bed, a thicket, or any other sheltered region, generally away from the pride. Often, she will hunt alone while the offsprings are still helpless while staying relatively near the den. At birth, the cubs are blind, and it takes around seven days for their eyes to open. They are almost helpless at birth and weigh around 2.6-4.6 lb (1.2-2.1 kg) during that time. They start crawling one or two days after they are born. They start walking after three-four weeks of their birth.
To avoid a buildup of scent that could attract the predators’ attention, the lioness keeps moving her cubs to new dens numerous times over the weeks, carrying them one by one while holding them by the nape of their neck. Male lions reach a level of maturity after they are three years old. On reaching four or five years of age, they are capable of challenging and displace adult males from another pride. They start ageing and weakening at around 10 to 15 years of age.
The Depictions of Lions and Lionesses
The lion species have been among the most widely seen and recognized animal symbols within human culture. They have been extensively projected in paintings and sculptures, on national flags, and in contemporary literature and films. Ever since the era of the Roman Empire, they have been kept in captivity for exhibitions. They have also been a primary species sought for menageries in zoological gardens worldwide since the late eighteenth century.
Ancient Egypt boasts of cultural depictions with the prominence of lions. Their depictions have also occurred in virtually every ancient and medieval culture in its current and former ranges. Modern literature continues to include them as Aslan in the C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the funny Cowardly Lon from L.
Frank’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the 1900s. Since the advent of cinema, the symbolism of lion was in use, and the most widely recognized and iconic lion has to be Leo, the mascot of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios from the 1920s. The movie Born Free starring Elsa the lioness, came out in 1966 and is based on the 1960’s non-fiction novel. The 1994 Disney animated movie The Lion King used the role of a lion as the king of the jungle.
Cultural Significance of Lion in the Western World
Lion-headed amulets and figures were found after excavating the tombs located in the Greek islands of Chios, Paros, Rhodes, Euboea, and Crete. They date back to the early Iron Age between the ninth to sixth centuries and are associated with Sekhmet, an Egyptian deity. Several of Aesop’s fables feature the lion, most known among which is The Lion and the Mouse’s story.
Ancient Rome and Greece saw the Nemean lion as a symbol of the zodiac sign and constellation Leo. In mythology, it was described as being killed and worn by Heracles, the hero, to symbolize triumph over death. Gawain and Lancelot were also heroes known for slaying the beast during the Middle Ages. In a couple of medieval stories, the animal is portrayed as companions and allies. Numerous medieval warrior-kings known for their bravery were nicknamed the “lions”.
One such warrior-ruler was Richard the Lionheart. You can see their frequent depictions over coats of arms, such as the coat of arms from Finland, as supporters or a device on the shields. However, the image of a lioness is less frequently used. The heraldic lion is pretty common in the arms of Britain. Traditionally, it is depicted in many attitudes, even though just lion rampant is regarded as lions in the French heraldry. Feline figures on other positions are instead called leopards. (See Why are Zoos important?)
In Chinese Culture
Chinese art uses the lion as a common motif. It was introduced in art in the fifth or sixth century. It soon got more popular in the Han Dynasty when imperial guardian lions were put up around imperial palaces for protection. The lion dance is also a traditional dance form of Chinese culture. The dancers wear lion costumes and mimic the movements of the animals, often with the accompaniment of gongs, cymbals, drums, and other musical instruments. It is performed during the August Moon Festival, the Chinese New Year, and various other good luck celebrations.