Did you know - Lion cub facts
Lionesses are first able to reproduce when they are 3 to 4 years old, and can reproduce year-round. Pregnancy lasts for around three and a half months (average 110 days). When a lioness is close to giving birth, she will separate from the pride and find a safe and secluded denning site, often in thick vegetation or even inside a cave. Here, she will give birth to a litter of between 1 and 6 cubs, who she will keep hidden until she re-joins the pride when they are around two months old.
Pregnant or lactating females can be identified by their prominent teats, as seen on this lioness in Nyerere National Park, Tanzania. It looks like the giraffe in the background is as interested in lions as we are!
Cubs are born with a spotted coat and blue-grey eyes which open shortly after birth. Their eyes change colour to amber at 2 to 3 months, and the spotted coat fades with age – although faint spots on the belly and legs can persist into adulthood. Like humans, lions are born without teeth: cubs’ milk teeth erupt when they are around a month old, and are replaced with adult teeth as they get older. Cubs are also born without tail tufts, and young males only start to develop their mane at around 6 months old.
This young male lion was photographed by Lion Landscapes in Nyerere National Park, as part of work to develop a database of lions in the Park’s tourist area. The distinct spot markings on his coat will fade as he grows older, and the tufty fur around his neck will continue to grow into a mane.
Shared care and feeding
When multiple lionesses in a pride have cubs, they will share care of their cubs by forming a “crèche”.
Lion cubs are completely dependent on milk after birth, and cubs in a crèche will suckle from any lioness that is lactating. Cubs can start supplementing their diet with meat when they are 4-6 weeks old, and will gradually eat more and more meat until they are fully weaned off milk at around a year.
Lion cubs will practice stalking and hunting techniques through play when they are young, and are able to begin joining hunts when they are a year old – although they still rely on adults for food until they are at least 2 years old.
Cub survival and mortality
Survival is quite low among young lion cubs, with an average of 60% of cubs dying within their first year.
One of the major causes of cub mortality is infanticide: when new males take over a pride they will kill unrelated young cubs so their mothers will be able to mate again, and bear the new male’s cubs.
Lion cubs are also susceptible to starvation and disease, and can even be trampled by buffalo.
However, once cubs have made it through their first year their chance of surviving substantially improves!
As cubs age into adolescents, females tend to stay in their natal range, only leaving the pride if there is a short supply of food.
In contrast, once subadult males reach around 3 years, they will spend more and more time away from their maternal pride, eventually leaving to find territories of their own.
These males will have a much better chance of survival if they can stick together in groups called coalitions during this difficult dispersal period when they will have to avoid areas where they are not wanted by people, and territorial male lions wherever lions are still tolerated.
Collaring for coexistence
Collaring for Coexistence is one of the pillars of the Coexistence Co-op programme, that Lion Landscapes run together with The Peregrine Fund to help halt the decline of lion populations. We deploy and manage specialised lion GPS collars that send us hourly locations for the lions; in each monitored pride one adult lioness is collared, and one adult male in each male coalition.
Access to this lion movement data is given to livestock owners and provides them with a warning if an individual is nearby, allowing them enough time to scare the individual away and keep their livestock safe. Reducing livestock depredation in this way minimises potential retaliatory poisoning events, supporting lion populations to reproduce and stay alive to care for their cubs.