"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...
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).
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.
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.