It seems when people talk of "Africa" and "Safari", that many get the image of a lion in their head - it is kind of like the iconic African animal. Despite this, lions are not one of my favourite species, however unscientific it is for me to say so! Nevertheless, through the ages, the male lion has been used to symbolise power, courage and nobility - think of royal coats of arms! But lions are not at all like that in reality! So what are they like?
The lion is the second largest of the four species in the Panthera genus, the largest being the tiger and the two other species being the jaguar and leopard. The Panthera genus itself belongs to the cat family (Felidae).
The male lion is unique amongst the felidae for having a mane. In fact, the mane can be used as an indicator as to how healthy and successful a male is - males with more testosterone have darker and fuller manes and females will tend to choose them by preference. Females do have a bit of a ruff around the neck however, and some more than others, which can lead to misidentification of gender.
The lion is also highly unusual compared to other cat species because it is highly social. Lions by preference live in a pride consisting of sometimes 10, perhaps more, females (who are usually related to one another) and their young, along with up to around 3 males. The female pride structure itself only changes when a female is born or dies - the daughters stay with the pride but the young males are excluded and leave when they are mature at about 2 or 3 years of age. The young males will form "nomad" groups (usually pairs) - or live alone as a nomad. They will stay that way until they manage to conquer an older lion and take on his pride - but some never achieve this. Sometimes females will live as nomads as well, but that is normally by accident rather than choice - a female nomad tends not to ever be accepted into other prides simply because the other pride females are related.
The males in the pride will usually be brothers, sometimes unrelated males, who have formed a partnership or a "coalition" as it is termed. Rarely will males actually hunt - they are too heavy and cumbersome and, as well as being very visible, their mane can cause them to overheat. Hunting is therefore the responsibility of the females. So the only responsibility of the males is to ensure the safety of the pride, control territory - and of course mate! They are therefore very good at fighting and violence! For example, a male lion, upon managing to defeat an older or injured lion and take over his pride, will kill any existing cubs. The mothers left behind will come into heat a few weeks later, so the new lion will mate with them. In this way, he ensures his own breeding success instead of taking on and having to look after another male's cubs. This is quite a common strategy in nature.
Although that all sounds rather horrid, if you have ever seen a male lion with his own cubs - or a female to which he is particularly attached - you will rarely see anything more sweet! Male lions seem to be extraordinarily patient and will cope with all manner of mauling from their cubs with what appears to be tender affection - something that is quite fascinating to watch as you keep expecting the male to get pissed off but he just doesn't! In fact, all fellow pride members are highly affectionate as long as certain rules are followed. Pride members tend to have distinct roles. For example, some will be leaders (and therefore be more dominant than others) and will help in protecting the pride (some females do take this responsibility on too, not just the males), and others are nurturers who you will see lagging behind if any confrontation occurs!
Females will usually hunt as a group. and usually near darkness. Their prey is normally the larger mammals such as wildebeest, buffaloes and suchlike. However, they do not have stamina and can only cope with short burst of speed - which is why stalking (to get as close to the prey as possible before it runs) and strategy (they tend to use ambush tactics to drive their intended prey towards other pride members) is important. In fact, each lioness also tends to have her own, fixed, job when they go out hunting. One or more will be the prey ambusher, others will be the ones that corner it, etc. They certainly do not have the amazing stamina of a hyaena. In fact, over half of a lion's diet is actually caught by other species - particularly hyaenas - so they are in fact serious scavengers as well - and it is the hyaena that unfairly has this title! The male lions eat first (if they are nearby) - then the higher ranking females, and so on. Interestingly, a male lion is more inclined to share his food with his cubs than his females - but then the cubs have his genes!
Talking of hyaenas, that species and lions are each other's main competitors so are highly combative towards one another. Lions will kill hyaenas - and hyaenas will kill lions - almost with no excuse it seems (as in, not necessarily to eat!). If you see an injured hyaena - frequently this will be because it has had too close an encounter with a lion!
Females can breed at any time of year. Lions are famous in their courtship behaviour - it may last several days and a male and female may copulate up to around 40 times in one day and may well not eat! A female tends to have a litter numbering around 2-3 cubs after a gestation period of about 110 days. The female will usually leave the pride to have the cubs alone, only returning after about 6-8 weeks, and having moved to different sites during that time to avoid a build up of scent. If another female (or more) in the pride has cubs however, the female will integrate back into the pride sooner and the females will nurse the cubs together as other females usually don't mind having other cubs suckle. This is a useful strategy, because when one mum goes off hunting with some of the others, one or more females are left behind to act as baby-sitters, so in fact females will try to synchronize their reproductive cycles. The cubs themselves will have been taught what they need to know and will be able to hunt themselves at around 2 years of age. They will be fully grown between 5 and 6 years of age and can expect a life span of around 13 years in the wild (usually around 10 years for males because of fighting injuries), perhaps 20 in captivity.
Below are some excellent resources about lions: