Thursday, August 12, 2010

Step-dads from Hell

"Better a serpent than a stepmother."
     Euripides (480-406 BC)

Over the millennia, step-mums have received some seriously bad press. From Cinderella to Hansel and Gretel, our folklore is brimful of stepmothers behaving badly. But where are the wicked step-dads? Stepfathers have gotten away with murder. And of course they still are, if you happen to be a lion.

Alright, I admit it, this post is about lions.  Again.
Not that I'm becoming obsessed by the creatures...

It's just I've got a horrible suspicion they've followed me home (my house is six kilometres from my study site, as the lion pads).
Just paranoia? Well if so, I'm not the only one. Last night a herd of waterbucks (shaggy, horse-sized antelope) settled down to sleep 12 metres (39 feet) from my backdoor. There they all sat, nonchalantly chewing their cuds, while the TV blared and my lights blazed, and the dogs yapped at the porcupine and I hollered at the dogs. This is NOT normal waterbuck behaviour. Even the dogs knew something was up, and pointedly ignored them (Wizard's aberrant feelings about waterbuck are elucidated here).

It reminded me worryingly of my visit to Yellowstone National Park, where I spent several days fruitlessly searching for an elk (a species I'd never seen) before stumbling upon dozens, all sitting about calmly amid the shops, cars and people inside the (wolf-free) camps. Were the local waterbucks using me as an anti-predator device? If so, it didn't work. A couple of hours after the dogs and I had retired, we were startled awake by a volley of explosive alarm barks and the wild crashing of waterbucks taking flight... from something...

On average, a lion eats 5-7 kg (11-15 lbs) of meat a day. But when push comes to shove, it can put away 50 kg (110 lbs) at one sitting (that's 30% of its own weight). Phew! Photo by Arno and Louise Meintjes.

The two lions that may, or may not, be wandering around outside my house are not step-dads. In fact, it's pretty safe to say any male lion you see lounging about is not a step-dad. When a male lion has step-kids, he's busy: hunting them.

You see, at the heart of every lion pride is a sisterhood of lionesses (mothers, sisters, aunts, nieces) who happily fix dinner together and suckle one another's cubs. The pride males are outsiders; war-hardened fighters who've forged alliances to overthrow their rivals. Now you probably already know that when new males take over a pride, they kill any cubs less than 12 months old. This isn't just wanton violence: freed from the needs of their cubs, the pride's mums will be ready to mate with their offspring's murderer in just a few days or weeks. What I hadn't realised, is the precariousness of this system.
The problem is, a lioness only gives birth once every two years (all being well) because it takes 18 months for her ankle-biters to learn to fend for themselves. But the average tenure of a pride male is only two years (at least in the Serengeti, where the long term studies have been done). So even the most paternal, fun-loving and altruistic step-dad simply can't afford not to get blood on his paws. Unless he rids the pride of dependent cubs, he won't have enough time to rear his own brood before his successor rushes in and murders them. It amazes me that any cubs survive at all (as it is, only 50% make it to 12 months of age).

Like an exclusive coffee circle, the number of adult lionesses in a pride is fixed (by the size of the pride's territory) and stays stable, year after year, even though individual members change. If the circle is full, the pride's daughters must leave home, but if places fall vacant - and there are no female cubs to fill them - even unrelated lionesses are allowed to join. Photo by Arno Meintjes.

Of course the whole system is pretty poxy for the lionesses too; after all, they invest much more in the cubs. Sometimes the girls will band together and successfully drive out the new males, and occasionally a mum will go into exile to save her cubs. But even when the wicked step-dads have done their evil deed, the lionesses still have some tricks up their... er... fur. After a change in males, the lionesses go through three or four months when they're very interested in sex. But they don't actually enter oestrus or conceive. This honeymoon period, not only encourages the males to hang around (rather than mating and abandoning the pride) but also allows time for any bigger and better males that might be lurking in the area, to overthrow the incumbents, before the girls have invested in their cubs.

It's been calculated (field biologists are a sad lot) that lions copulate 3000 times for every cub that survives to yearling age. Ovulation in lady lions is brought on by love-making, so he's got to get it right, if he wants to be a dad. Photo by Arno and Louise Meintjes.

Of one thing you can be sure, if lions have folklore, wicked stepfathers will be a very prominent feature.

A cub of one's own. Photo by Arno and Louise Meintjes.


  1. Telephones and TV in the bush!! Unheard of!! Unthinkable!! You are spoilt rotten!! LOL!! I did not see TV for 23 years (not that there was much to see or miss anyway!!)

    It does seem cruel that the males kill the previous cubs when they take over a pride don't they? Nature can be tough and hard to understand sometimes, but it brings new genes into the bloodline. Did you hear about the studies done on this in enclosed areas like Kruger and Pilansberg? I am sure you have. Very interesting articles. I know in Pilansberg they brought in lions from another area specefically for this problem.

  2. So you have a fondness for having little kitties close at hand, but would just as soon keep these big ones at a distance. I'd be finding stump lions too!

    When we are out photographing we always say we aren't doing a good job if we don't find a few "Look-a-likes", i.e. get fooled by a rock, lump, stump. In Yellowstone we slammed on the brakes three years in a row for the same, far off boulder. I swear the spirits put it there to keep grizzlies on our mind.

  3. I understand why these Males do such a horrible thing, it surprizes me how any of these cubs become adults at all do they target more male cubs than female cubs ?? or do they all get this horrible treatment.

  4. Maybe you should declare a holiday and stay in bed until the lions move on.. Or remember an appointment you had with an old friend in town, and cruise off with your dogs in the car for a few days... And don't stop blogging, cos we might think you got ett.

  5. Joan,
    Yes, I'd heard that inbreeding was a problem in smaller reserves. In Hluhluwe-Umfolozi (where 3 lions, introduced in the 1960s, have given rise to a population of 120), they're 20% smaller than lions every where else and they show sperm abnormalities and reduced resistance to disease. No surprise really!

    Size DOES matter! I understand your boulder-grizzlies. I tend to have the opposite problem (with boulder-rhinos) where big grey, granite tors suddenly start walking.

    I don't think they discriminate between the sexes when it comes to cubs. But all young males (regardless of who their dad is) are sent packing once they reach two or three years old.

  6. The same seems to be happening with the white lions. They are trying to breed too many without introducing new stock and all seem to have a genetic problem which shows in the eyes. Maybe some people are to greedy and do not want to spend the money getting in new blood. Man sure is creating havoc in some circumstances!!

  7. I just discovered your blog, thanks to Henry the South African camera trapper, and I love it! You make our diamondbacks and feral pigs seem positively peaceful. The factoids about the 2-year alpha-span of males and the delayed estrus in femmes were new ones on me, and help me to understand leonine infanticide. Your dogs remind me of our dogs when we were kids camping out and a Florida panther decided to visit our nocturnal campsite. The difference between our dogs and yours is that ours simply left us - they just vanished in a cloud of yelps. At least yours stayed with you, but surely (gulp) not for leftovers? LOL

  8. Buford Nature,
    My dogs were on leashes, so they didn't have much choice! The first time Wizard (my husky) saw an elephant he let out a dreadful yelp and ran and hid under the bed. Enjoyed your tree house/panther tale.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...