Cats might be petite, but when it comes to personality, they tend to have the bravado of lions, their larger cousins from the Felidae Family.
It seems that all these big and small cats share many similarities, firstly, they all look gorgeous, and secondly, most of them want to be left alone, but are they all truly antisocial?
Are lions the only social cat? The lion is the most social animal of all the wild felid species living in groups called prides. Females form the stable social unit in a pride and are all related, while most male lions live alone or in small groups called “coalitions.”
If you want to know more about the social life of lions and get a closer glimpse at the solitary lifestyles of other big felines, and of course, our housecats then keep on reading!
Are Lions The Only Social Cat?
The Lion, the royalty of the African grasslands, and savanna is considered one of the most impressive animals to walk this earth. Even if we don’t know much about their lifestyle most of us probably have formed a familiarity with lions through the Lion King, and while it’s a fictional story, it does tell us one certain truth, that the lion is a social cat.
Just like their neighbors, the wild dogs of Africa, lions form and live within groups, that we call prides. The number of lions in a pride may vary, and according to Roland W. Kays the Curator of Animals at the New York State Museum states that “the group may consist of as few as 4 or as many as 37 members, but about 15 is the average size.”
The pride mostly consists of female lions and a few males, and unlike the solitary wild cats around the world, lions have found a way to live in close proximity to each other as long as they’re a part of the same group!
Why Are Lions The Only Social Cat?
They say everything happens for a reason, and this definitely applies to the collective spirit of lions. Lions are one of the strongest cats out there, second only to tigers, and it would make sense if they followed the solitary path of most felines, but in order to survive the unique African landscape, they had to do it as a team.
Lions had to evolve into social animals so they could get the best out of territories that had lots of food, and subsequentially plenty of competition. Anna Mosser, a teaching assistant professor in the College of Biological Sciences, found that “social individuals were significantly more likely to evolve, within a population of solitary individuals, in heterogeneous landscapes with high-value hotspots and if they exhibited cooperative territorial defense, in particular.”
So, no matter how strong the lion is on its own, forming groups and working together was the only way they could keep up with hyenas, wild dogs!
How Do Lion Prides Work?
Now that we’ve established that lions are indeed the most social group in the feline kingdom, I think it’s important to take a deeper look into the social system of a pride.
Who has the upper hand? Do they also communicate with each other the way our feline companions do? And most importantly, what’s so special about lions that they’ve managed to put away their differences and work together as a team?
Lion Pride Social System
While lions are social, they don’t simply live in one massive pride across Africa or India, instead, they form smaller groups responsible for their own divided territories. Each pride can differ in size, consisting mainly of females that are related, while the males are a small fraction of their numbers. While the young females usually stay within the same pride, the young males venture outside to find unrelated mates and even create small groups with each other called coalitions.
“Females are the core. The heart and soul of the pride. The males come and go,” says Craig Packer, one of the world’s leading lion researchers and director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota.
The Journal titled The American Naturalist, also states that “female lions live in fission-fusion social units (prides) and forage only with members of their own pride.” Additionally, “females also compete aggressively against neighboring prides, and larger groups successfully repel smaller ones in territorial disputes. Small prides appear to be excessively gregarious in order to compete against larger neighboring prides.”
The University of Minnesota also found that “lions are highly territorial and occupy the same area for generations. Females actively defend their territories against other females, while resident males protect prides from rival coalitions.”
This kind of division and competition with other prides, as well as the unity within a group perfectly showcases the lion’s need for sociability.
Communication Through Roars
This social hierarchy within a lion pride needs of course to be communicated within the group. While strength, the size, and the color of a lion’s mane are both powerful statements these animals have found another social tool which is roaring. It’s something our cute fluffballs are unable to do, but for lions, it’s a way to communicate with their companions. They usually roar between dusk and dawn, letting the rest of the pride know where they are located.
Since lions are social animals, this means that they rely on their pride and on their collective numbers, and an amazing discovery done by The University of Minnesota showed they’re in fact sensitive to numbers, “the lion’s roar is a territorial display that can be heard from at least five km away. Lions are able to count the number of individuals in a roaring group and will challenge the invaders if they safely outnumber them.”
While our cats meow and lions roar, both groups have a common communication tool and that’s scent marking. A 2017 scientific report showed that “lion scent-marks are indicators of their territorial areas, reproductive state, fitness, individuality, genetic variation, and sexual differentiation.”
Just like our house cats, they’ll leave their scent through feces, urine, marking fluid, as well as by rubbing their faces on other lions and objects. When it came to head rubbing and licking, researchers found that this behavior was most likely a social function that helped reduce tension, increase social bonding, and it was a social status expression.
Lions might be social mammals, but they also lead dangerous lives, so when the time of birth approaches the female leaves the pride and has her lion babies in a cover. Then she makes sure to move her cubs into a safe den where she keeps them hidden for one to two months, while she hunts and feeds them.
When the cubs are introduced to the pride, they’ll spend most of their day learning how to stalk, hide and wrestle through play. Or in this case, the Lionness is trying to teach her unruly cub to stay away from the water!
While the mother is responsible for teaching new skills to their babies, the father doesn’t become involved until they reach the second year of their age. Studies have shown that cubs are in potential danger not only from outside predators but the pride itself. The lioness usually makes sure to keep them safe from other females and males, but one of the greatest dangers to baby lions are “new dominant males who have taken over the pride. If the mother returns from birthing and early rearing to a shift in male power, the newly instated dominant males will kill her cubs.”
If the pack’s equilibrium doesn’t shift, and the cubs manage to survive and thrive by the age of two, the young males are driven out, which will ensure that there’s no inbreeding in the pride and that dominating males stay in their position of power. Since male lions will make sure to protect the group from outside threats, and the females work together, the chances of a cub surviving are far greater, if they were to do so on their own.
As with most social mammals, the lions of a pride have assigned roles. The male lions are the strongest so, they usually take up the role of the protector, by keeping any dangerous foes and threats away from the pride. The female lions are smaller and not as physically strong as their male counterparts, but they’re much faster, which is why they are the group’s hunters.
According to research, female lions are “up to 30% faster, reaching top speeds of up to 45mph. Additionally, Lionesses also hunt together in packs, effectively increasing their chances of capturing a prey successfully.” The female lions will stalk their prey, by laying low, and hiding as long as possible while they approach their target. Being smaller makes it easier for them to get lost in the surroundings, as they circle the prey.
The hunters work closely together and during the final chase, they use their powerful claws to crush the prey and take them back to their home. Of course, while the females do take a leading hunting role, the male lions will sometimes also join in. When they do, the hunt is more straightforward, and the goal is to corner the big prey and head-on attack them. In these cases, the males are an advantage since they can use their brute force to take down the larger prey.
So, it’s clear that both strategies and the social systems at place play a major role in the successful outcome of their hunting game, and ensure that the pride will be fed for another day!
Do Solitary Lions Exist?
While most lions are extroverted socialites, there is an exception to the rule, right in the harsh deserts of northern Kenya where the lions don’t form prides.
Shivani Bhalla, the founder and executive director of Ewaso Lions, an organization that promotes the coexistence between humans and wildlife who live along the Ewaso river states that “everyone keeps labeling lions as the only social cat, but they’re not really social here.” So, in this area you won’t find lion groups, instead, both males and females will hunt and survive alone and come together only to mate.
This find is extremely fascinating because it tells us that the same kind of animal found a way to adapt differently to their surroundings. By taking a closer look at these solitary lions, Shivani Bhalla found that the way they raise their cubs had to be different. While female lions from prides leave their cubs with “babysitters,” the lone lionesses who live along the Ewaso river take their offspring everywhere, even on the hunt.
Do Big Cats Live Social Lives?
Taking a closer look at the big cats in terms of sociality should reveal that most of them are solitary by nature, or at least that’s what researchers believed up until now. While it’s true about most large wild cats, a new study found that mountain lions, also known as cougars or pumas are more social than we previously believed.
While they’re still mostly solitary animals, research recorded “81 instances of tolerance and social interactions at carcasses lasted on average 25.4+27.8 hours.” They discovered that “60% of these interactions were shared feedings—pumas from one territory sharing the carcass of a large animal killed by a puma in an overlapping or neighboring territory.”
What’s even more fascinating is the fact that “if one puma allowed a second to feed from its kill, the second was 7.7 times more likely to allow the first to feed from one of their own kills later.”
While mountain lions might’ve developed some sort of tolerance among their own kind, it seems that the rest of the big cat committee is still quite conservative. Tigers, for example, are far more solitary and only meet with the opposite sex to mate, while the males show a very territorial and competitive personality. As researchers have discovered over the years, “Their social system is connected through visual signals, scent marks, and vocalizations”.
What seems to be a reoccurring theme among different large wild cats, like the leopard, jaguar, and cheetah is that the males are mostly loners, while some of the females can potentially form social groups with other females.
Are Cats Social Animals?
Now that we’ve taken the time to learn more about the social structures of the larger felines, I think it’s only appropriate to talk about their mini versions, our feline companions.
As a cat parent, I’ve been bombarded with opinions on how cats are not domesticated enough, so they can’t develop strong bonds with their humans, and that they’d rather be alone, which I think it’s anti-cat propaganda and I’m sure as cat-parents we’re not having this!
Domesticated And Feral Cats
I think before we dive deeper into the social capabilities of our fluffballs, it’s important to understand that both feral, stray, and pet cats are members of the same species and they’re all basically domestic cats. Gary M. Landsberg, BSc, DVM, MRCVS, DACVB, DECAWBM, North Toronto Veterinary Behavior Specialty Clinic states that “cats are social animals that, in feral conditions, live in groups consisting mainly of queens and their litters. The density of the group depends partly on food resources.”
If you live in a place where stray cats are roaming the streets you might find groups of cats living peacefully in different neighborhoods where the people feed them. In these kinds of conditions where there’s plenty of food for everyone, cats usually form colonies, ranging from 2-15 individuals, and they’re mostly made up of female cats that cooperatively raise kittens. This kind of social and communal attitude where kittens are raised by all the female cats, the resources are shared and the males are solitary hunters is quite similar to the lifestyle led by lions!
So, this shows that cats are truly social, but that’s not where their sociability ends. According to a recent study, “the domestic cat is the only member of the Felidae to form social relationships with humans, and also, the only small felid to form intraspecific social groups when free-ranging.”
Landsberg also goes on to say that “the socialization period of cats is much shorter than that of dogs and may begin to wane by 7–9 weeks of age. During this narrow window, exposure to cats, other animals, people, and a variety of stimuli in the environment is important for the prevention of fear.” In other words, cats, if socialized not to fear humans and other pets can develop a social relationship with both, and while their territorial nature can occasionally get in the way of peacefully co-existing, they can even become strongly bonded with another cat inside the same house!
It’s amazing how lions found that being social is a way to survive by hunting together, raising their cubs in nursery groups, and defending their territories in unison. Can we say the same about cats, I think we definitely can, but when it comes to our own mini feline versions they might be a bit too spoilt to share their wealth!
Fortunately, my two cats have learned to tolerate each other’s company, share their food and toys, but what about your cats?
Are they social like lions or are they solitary individuals?