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Secrets of lion social structure

We get two very common questions about the lions here at the Zoo: 1: Is it natural to have three boys together? and 2: Which brother is dominant? Both questions are great and are definite conversation starters full of fascinating lion facts, which I want to share with you. To answer these questions, it is important to share some details about lion social dynamics.

When a female lion cub is born, she will most likely go on to live her entire life with her pride. This pride is made up of her mother, sisters, aunts, and cousins, as well as one to three males who may or may not be related to her. When a male cub is born into a pride, he is typically only allowed to stay until he is 18-24 months old. At this time, male lions are becoming sexually mature, and their presence is no longer tolerated by the dominant male or males of the pride. These dispersing sub-adult males may be sexually mature, but they’re not socially mature and often lack the skills needed to challenge a current “reigning” male for the right to a pride. It is normal for a male lion to be 5-7 years old before he is successful at having a pride of his very own. In this sub-adult phase of a male lion’s life, he will either disperse on his own, or he will disperse with other related males and form a coalition. These coalitions may stay together for life, and coalitions of males have been known to protect a pride together with one male being dominant over the others. The Zoo’s lions, who are brothers, are now 6.5 years old, and we fully expect them to continue to live together as a coalition unless the Lion Species Survival Plan® (SSP) recommends otherwise.

As is the case with wild coalitions, the Zoo’s lions have a complex social hierarchy. They are strongly bonded to each other and are always nearby, or at least aware of, the others’ locations. Naming the most dominant male of the group is complicated. Hatari has always seemed to be more dominant over his brothers. He always seems to do as he pleases, going where he wants when he wants. However, when the brothers bicker (which all siblings are apt to do), it is always Azizi who steps in as the peacemaker to diffuse the tension. This leads us to believe that Azizi is the most dominant of the coalition. Hondo is the most subordinate of the three. He is the most opinionated and tends to show the most posturing and dominance behaviors, which he almost always directs toward Hatari. Hatari is a good sport about Hondo’s behavior and “picks his battles.” He submits to Hondo, which we can hear in his vocalizations and see in his body posture, but he also doesn’t hesitate to put Hondo in his place with a few good swats and growls if he really wants something. Hondo very rarely challenges Azizi. At the end of the day, Hondo appears to be all talk, but he seems to know his place as the low man on the totem pole. So now you know: Not only is it fascinating that lions are a truly social cat species, but they also have a really cool social structure!

(photo by Jen A.)

Jen A.
Keeper II, Mammals

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl