Male Lions Fend Off Other Males and Hyenas When Their Pride Has Cubs

How do male lions protect their pride and what threats do they face? Learn more about this male and female lion behavior when cubs are present.

By Joshua Rapp Learn
Jul 8, 2024 7:30 PMJul 8, 2024 7:23 PM
Male lions fighting
(Credit: Martin Mecnarowski/Shutterstock)


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Lions may be the kings of the jungle, but they can face threats themselves – especially lion cubs. Young lions are often vulnerable to male lions from other coalitions that can kill clubs so they can mate with the female lions. Spotted hyenas and other large carnivores also present a threat to lion cubs.

New research in a study published recently in the Journal of Animal Ecology, revealed that male lions have a certain way of defending their territory from danger – from either rival male coalitions or roving packs of hyenas.

“They show more territorial defense behavior,” says Romain Dejeante, an ecology student at the University of Montpelier in France.

Studying Male Lion Behavior

Female lions typically band together in maternal nursery groups so they can collectively help protect cubs. These prides are often associated with a coalition of males who also band together to give themselves an advantage over other male lions in a territory.

Dejeante and his colleagues wanted to learn whether male lions acted any differently when the females in their pride had kittens compared to when they didn’t.

The study tracked the behavior of 17 prides, both using GPS collars and field observations, in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe between 2002 and 2016. The collars revealed where the males spent most of their time, and whether the males from one pride crossed paths with those from another pride. The field observations, meanwhile, revealed whether a given pride had kittens or not.

Read More: The Science of Alpha Males in Animal Species

How Male Lions Protect Their Cubs

Researchers have long known that lions repel each other by roaring and scent marking at the edge of their territories.

But Dejeante and his colleagues found that male lions didn’t really change their social behavior with the females when cubs were around. The real changes happened when the males were away from the females.

The team initially thought that when females had cubs, the male lions in the pride would likely stay closer to them. But they found this wasn’t the case.

Instead, the tracking data showed that males preferred to spend their time away from the females in areas where they were more likely to get into a fight. They spent more time patrolling the edges and waterholes of their territory. These are both places Dejeante refers to as high risk, where encounters with other lions or hyenas are more likely to occur.

“Male lions are more likely to patrol to prevent the intrusion of rivals into their core territory when they have cubs,” Dejeante says.

The strategy seemed to work. The collar data revealed that males more often encountered males from other prides inside their territory when they didn’t have cubs. When the females had cubs, in contrast, males were more likely to encounter potential rivals on the edges of their territory or around water holes.

The type of vegetation also influenced male lion movement. When their territory was more open, where they could see threats from further away, males spent more time with females — about 60 percent on average. But when vegetation was dense, they only spent 10 percent of their time with females, on average — the rest was spent patrolling.

Read More: Why Do Animals Fight — And What Do They Fight About?

A Female Lion Defense

Other research in the past has shown that females also take steps to defend against males. Aside from banding together in nursery groups when they have cubs, they also use their ears. Research shows that females can differentiate between the males in their pride from outside males.

“Although they remain relaxed when played roars from resident males, they immediately become agitated on hearing unfamiliar males and retreat rapidly with their cubs if the latter have reached about 4.5 months of age,” the authors said in the paper, which added that the females also moved closer to cubs when they heard unfamiliar males.

Females are also more careful against rival groups of females, which may pose a threat as well. Another study showed that females were more likely to approach the sounds of a single female roaring but kept their distance when they heard several females roaring in chorus.

“A strong selective advantage to avoiding the costs of fighting with larger groups could have led to the widespread evolution of numerical assessment skills in social species,” the authors wrote.

Read More: It's Rare, But a Lioness Can Grow a Mane

Article Sources

Our writers at use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Joshua Rapp Learn is an award-winning D.C.-based science writer. An expat Albertan, he contributes to a number of science publications like National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian, New Scientist, Hakai, and others.

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