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Life in the Savannah

 
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The lion is the largest species in the cat family. Lions rival tigers for the title of biggest cat. Lions and tigers are very similar in their physical features. Without their distinctively colored fur, scientists have trouble telling them apart. Male lions weigh between 330 and 550 lb and stand about 48 inches tall at the shoulder. They measure up to 98 inches in length, not including the tail, which measures an additional 35 to 41 inches. Female lions are smaller, weighing between 265 and 400 lb. They stand about 42 inches tall and measure less than less than 69 inches in length, with a slightly shorter tail.

Adult lions have fur that varies in color from light tan to reddish brown. The tufted tail is tipped in darker fur. Only male lions grow a mane around the shoulders, which grows darker and fuller as the animal ages. Cubs are born with thickly spotted fur, which helps them hide from predators in brush and clumps of vegetation. The spots gradually fade as the cubs grow up, sometimes remaining on the legs and belly until the lion reaches adulthood.

African lions and Asian lions differ slightly in appearance. Asian lions have a flap of skin on the abdomen, called a belly fold, not found in African lions. Male African lions have fuller manes than Asian lions do, and the shape of their skulls differs slightly.

Despite their immense strength, lions do not have an easy life in the wild. They suffer from parasites and disease, they get injured or even killed while hunting or fighting with each other, and they may starve when food is scarce. About two-thirds of all cubs die before they are 1 year old. Adult males are usually old and battered by age 10, if they survive that long, and they rarely live longer than 12 years. Females may live longer, up to 16 years, and some are still breeding at 15. In zoos, where they receive veterinary care and plenty of food—and are not allowed to fight—lions can live as long as 25 years.

Prides, groups of lions, range between 2 and 12 lions per group. Prides are unusual, however. They usually only consist of all females or all males. They generally do not travel in groups of mixed genders. When the young males reach 2 to 4 years of age, they are pushed from the group and sent to male groups, called coalitions. 

Lions usually hunt at night, alone, or in groups. Their preferred prey are large hoofed mammals, such as zebras and wildebeests, but they will go after small hares as well as huge giraffes. Typically, a lion hunting alone will slowly and silently stalk its prospective victim, trying not to be seen, until it is about 30 m (about 98 ft) away. Then with a burst of speed, the lion will run toward the prey, grab it, and throw it to the ground. The lion kills the prey by biting the back of the animal’s neck with sharp canine teeth or by holding the prey's throat in its jaws until the animal suffocates. If, during a hunt, the prey detects the lion's presence and starts to run, the lion gives up. Although lions are capable of high speed over short distances, they do not have the endurance to chase down an escaping animal.

In group hunts, lions may surround potential prey so it has nowhere to escape. Some lions may drive prey into the reach of others. Two or more lions may grab and slash together to bring down an animal. Lions are more likely to hunt together to kill larger animals, such as zebras and buffalo, and usually hunt alone to kill smaller prey, such as warthogs. In either case, other lions that did not help with the kill still move in to share the food.

When feeding on a large kill, a lion can eat almost 80 lb of meat in one feeding and then not need to eat for several days. about 11 lb) of meat daily. How often it must hunt depends on the size of the prey it kills—or on the amount it can scavenge from others' kills. In zoos, lions are fed 1.5 to 4 kg (3 to 9 lb) of meat per day. This is less than they would eat in the wild due to their less active lifestyle.

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Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2003. © 1993-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
 
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