When I went on safari in Africa, the guide told me about lions that would kill and eat cubs. I know that many animals commit infanticide but have never seen it. Unfortunately, the next day I witnessed it myself.
It is a fact that lions eat their cubs. However, the tendency is attributable to different reasons. Researchers argue that lions eat their cubs to gain access to scarce resources in the wild, survival of the fittest, prevention of misguided parental care, and the urge to get direct nutritional benefits. However, further research shows that the main reason for infanticide among lions is to increase reproductive opportunities.
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Infanticide and Search for Reproductive Opportunities
Researchers believe that male lions kill their cubs to bring back the lionesses into estrus, and while this is not strictly true, males want their cubs to further their genes and lineage. Because of this, male lions commit infanticide when they take over a pride.
How Lionesses Protect their Cubs from Male Infanticide
After birth, a lioness ensures that all her cubs are safe from attacks by large birds of prey and lions, as they’re tiny and delicate. She keeps her cubs hidden from other lions in the pride for about six weeks until they mature to follow the pride. Where older cubs are present in the pride, the lioness waits until the young ones are three months old before she introduces them to the rest. Usually, lionesses in the pride bear cubs concurrently and fend for them in a group. The group keeps them safe from enemies.
Surprisingly, by the time the new males join the pride, the already pregnant females can hide their cubs, pretending they belong to the new males. Similarly, the lionesses with newly born cubs can conceal them and expose them later after mating with the new males. The trick portrays lionesses as intelligent, as they make the males end up fending for the cubs that are not theirs.
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Infanticide by Lions
It is not automatic that the new dominant males in the pride will commit infanticide. The lions only need assurance that they will dominate the pride. The lionesses sometimes successfully convince the new males not to eliminate the cubs. Should a male accept the offspring from the former ruling male, he will henceforth safeguard them.
When a new alliance of males arrives to inherit the pride, it sometimes eliminates the lionesses’ cubs in the pride. Research shows that the male lions kill the cubs because they’re not biologically related to them. Thus, they are unwilling to use their energy in futility, knowing that the lioness will propagate the other lions’ genes instead. Moreover, the lions think that the lionesses won’t be responsive to mating while nursing their offspring, so they kill their cubs to initiate mating and later procreate.
The new lions into the existing pride usually aim at cubs about nine months and below. They will still be under their mother’s care, which undermines the lions’ attention from the lioness to initiate mating. Lionesses try to prevent male infanticide by directly protecting their cubs or hiding them. However, the lionesses succeed more at defending the cubs that are almost due to leave the pride.
Do Lionesses Commit Infanticide?
Though not as prevalent as male infanticide, lionesses also kill their cubs. But they hardly kill or eat their cubs unless it is necessary. A lioness can intentionally leave her litter where only one cub is left. Sometimes a lioness can kill her cubs to prevent predators from attacking and eating the remaining ones. Moreover, she can kill some of her cubs if the litter is too large to bring up. Research shows that females can abandon their cubs if they are ill, disabled, not viable, or generally weak. Packer & Pusey, 1984, argue that leaving single cubs and altogether buying into a larger litter increases the lionesses’ reproductive success in their lifetime.
Lions are usually dominant territorial males for two to three years on average. Lions need to transfer their genes to the succeeding generations to ensure genetic diversity. Therefore, the animals have limited time to raise their cubs to maturity. On the other hand, the lionesses taking care of their cubs are not receptive to mating that the males desire. But when cubs die, lionesses are soon in heat and can now mate with the dominant males. This situation, therefore, leads the dominant males to eliminate the female cubs from the former dominant males in the pride.
Conversely, a lioness rarely kills her cubs. When she does, she intends to keep away predators from her remaining cubs. She could also be reducing the number of cubs to feed the remaining ones easily. Finally, a lioness can eliminate some of her cubs that she finds disabled, sickly, or extremely weak.
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