Are lions the only big cats that hunt in prides and why are other big cats solitary? (specifically the females)

Answer by Rory Young:

Yes they are the only cats that hunt in prides. Young cheetah males will sometimes congregate in bachelor groups but these just temporary get-togethers.

Let’s look at the three big African cats, the lion, leopard and cheetah. They have each evolved to fill a niche which they dominate. These niches may overlap and when they do the lion is top of the pile, followed by leopards and then cheetah.

The leopard is an ambush predator. They like to stalk their prey as close as possible and then pounce on them. They also try to sneak up on animals in trees, especially baboons and monkeys and then start up the tree by which stage the baboon can’t go anywhere. Baboons will fight back at times as a group but that is another story.

In order to ambush prey they need to be on their own. A large group of them would not be able to stalk animals as successfully.

The ideal environment for them is forested or rocky not flat and open, as that would not allow them to stalk up close to their prey.

In some ways they are more gregarious than people would imagine. Males’ and females’ territories will overlap, as will females and females. However, males’ and males’ territories will not overlap and they will chase each other out of their areas. Adult offspring will often hang out with mom from time to time for a few days if they bump into each other. These habits show that they are not solitary because they don’t “like” each other but because they are necessarily so to hunt and survive.

Leopards’ spots are also ideal camouflage for an ambush predator, allowing them to sneak up close without being seen.

Cheetah of course also have spots. Most people imagine them running down prey from distance with their incredible speed. However, they need to get as close to their prey as possible first before launching themselves after it and running it down. Thus the need for spots. They combine stealth first and then speed to succeed.

So, leopards and cheetahs do not really compete in terms of environment because as explained, leopards prefer terrain where they can hide and ambush whilst cheetah open areas, with some limited cover such as tall grass or shrubs to first stalk their prey. The extremes of these two are mountainous terrain or cliffs where you will find leopards (who are incredibly versatile and will live on the edges of urban areas living off rats if need be) and flat open grassland areas where you will find cheetahs (who are not versatile at all). Both species are medium size, allowing them to take down relatively large game or small game to survive.

And then of course there are lions. Although the will not survive in the extreme mountainous terrain where leopards are happy, they will overlap a fair amount with them in areas of fairly open, broken ground and savanna woodland. When it comes to cheetah habitat however, there is much more competition between cheetahs and lions and cheetahs will often be chased off their kills. I was fortunate to be part of the cheetah re-introduction into Matusadona National Park in Zimbabwe 20 years ago. I built the boma (a boma is a pen where you keep the animals for anything from 4 to 8 weeks to acclimatize them to a new area and get them settled)  so that the 16ft fences were buried deep with rubble, very strong with steel posts and the fences were looser the higher up they went so that any thing trying to climb them would fall off. This was because we were expecting trouble and boy we got it. During the day we would shoot impalas to feed  the cheetahs and then sleep because we would be up all night chasing off lions and hyaenas (he he, yes they should be part of the question and answer but you did specify cats) with shots and Landrovers. Lions, leopards and cheetahs will kill each other if they get a chance, because of the competition for food.

Lions are “pack hunters”. They live in close-nit extended family groups. Their group behaviour allows them to take on prey that neither leopards nor cheetah could touch. They use herding and other techniques together with stalking and enormous strength to take down large prey all the way up to elephants (this is quite common in Botswana). Most importantly and most relevant to your question, they can tackle large herds of large game and this is their real niche which they dominate completely.

If they were solitary they would not be able to feed themselves consistently, as often happens with young males who are pushed out of the pride when they grow to big for their boots and start threatening the boss. These homeless males will either die of hunger, join up with other such males to hunt as a team or learn to hunt on their own, adopting methods more like leopards.

With regards to females specifically, although we males hate to admit it, females are the heart of any  group and whilst males tend to think first about sex and then food whilst females tend to think about feeding their babies and then themselves. So the males are pretty much obsessed with their… genes.

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