A question that arises on almost every safari I lead, is that of male lion coalitions.
So why do they group together?
Let’s dive right in and find out…
There’s very little more awe-inspiring than the sight of 3, 4 or 5 male lions together. Their power combined is simply incredible! The sight of them patrolling their territory is something the fortunate few privileged enough to have seen it would never forget.
So why do these lions form these groups, or coalitions as they are more formerly known.
What are the advantages, and are there any disadvantages to this?
Lets have a look at some of the benefits of large male lion coalitions:
- The first benefit is a rather obvious one. Three prime male lions are stronger than two, and four prime male lions are stronger than three, etc. To see one or two male lions occupying a territory is no abnormal sight. They can do so very effectively as we will soon discuss. That said, they will have a very hard time defending their land from a larger coalition of males.
- By having more male lions within your coalition, you have the opportunity to occupy a larger tract of land, and in so doing you will likely take charge of several prides. The largest coalition I have ever heard of is 8, and largest I have ever spent time with is 6.
- It becomes easier to defend your territory in large number and as a stronger unit.
- It makes sense for a single male on his own to join up with an existing coalition. This is no easy task as you are at the mercy of the other male lions in the existing coalition. Being part of the coalition offers better feeding opportunities as you are part of a larger hunting unit, it offers protection from other male lions and you have direct access to more than one pride with the potential of reproducing.
Male lions on their own have a hard time surviving in areas with a high density of males.
Lets look at some advantages of singe male lions or small male lion coalitions (1-2):
- Will likely have a smaller territory to defend, meaning more effort can be thrusted into doing this and it will be done more effectively than covering a larger area. You can only be in so many places at any given time.
- Will likely only have one pride to cover and will therefore have more mating opportunities within the pride.
So lets think about the above mentioned and see if there really is one that’s better than the other.
- A massive issue for single male lions or small coalitions, is that they are always risk of encountering larger much stronger coalitions. Male lions intent on occupying an area are highly aggressive and in large numbers of 4, 5 or 6 spell bad news for smaller coalitions. Serious fights between male lions are not all that common and the less dominant lion usually opts to run for its life than to stand and fight when grossly outnumbered. So the favour here lies undoubtedly with the larger coalition.
- Once in control of a pride or territory, the larger coalitions will occupy a much larger piece of land than single or small groups of males. Is this always a good thing though?
Let’s say a pride of 5 adult lionesses and their territory is taken over by 1 male lion. If he successfully mates with all 5, he has the chance of producing roughly 15 cubs. That’s a massive reproductive success for a male lion.
- In large coalitions of 4 or 5 males, the dynamics are much different. There’s a large amount of fighting between male lions for dominance and power. Often one will emerge as the most aggressive and often he will be the one that takes charge of most mating responsibilities. Dominant male lions within these large coalitions are often dressed with larger darker manes. More on that to follow in another blog post.So if 5 male lions occupy the territories of 2 prides with 5 adult lionesses each, and the dominant male lions claimed mating right to 3 of the 5 lionesses, he has the opportunity to sire 18 cubs. That’s great for him but what about his other coalition members? If they are fortunate and in the ideal world, it would leave them at best with 3 cubs each! That’s not much at all!
As can be seen above and below, fighting amongst males in large coalitions is not uncommon, and often leave lions with some impressive injuries.
One will often encounter large coalitions within areas where competition and lion densities are high. In order to be effective and to stand a chance of occupying land, brother & cousins often group together when they get kicked out of the pride. Males that end up on their own will often integrate into an exsiting coalition, or team up with other lone males.
A male lion’s entire being and reason for existing is to occupy land, reproduce and successfully raise his offspring. That, is his mandate.
If a male lion can successful lay claim to an area by himself, and in turn successfully defend that territory from intruding male lions for two years, he will have achieved success. He will have had more mating opportunity than most males in larger coalitions, and in turn would have sired more cubs. The most challenging aspect for 1 or 2 male lions lies in defending their territory.
That said, you tend to find smaller coalitions in areas with less lion density and competition often making life a little bit easier.
So as you can see from the above mentioned, there are great benefits on both ends of the scale.
It would make sense to try and have a pride and territory on your own, as you are then capable of producing more cubs.
In the same breath it makes sense to form a part of a coalition where densities are high and the odds of you successfully occupying land on your own are small.
I hope that I was able to shed some light on this subject. Animals and their associated behaviors are fascinating, and there’s often so much more than meets the eye.
Till next time,
Marlon du Toit
* * *