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African and Asian Lions (Panthera leo) Fact Sheet: Diet & Feeding

Diet & Feeding

Lions: carnivores with high protein needs

  • Generalist hunters (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Stalk-and-ambush predators (Davidson et al. 2013)
    • Reported hunting more than 40 species (Hayward and Kerley 2005)
    • Opportunistic: eat what is available (Davidson et al. 2013; West and Packer 2013)
    • Seasonal patterns in prey preferences (Davidson et al. 2013)
  • Prey items in Africa (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009, throughout)
    • Large variety of prey
    • Medium to large-sized ungulates make up bulk of diet (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009, and as noted)
      • Preference for prey weighing 190-550 kg (419-1213 lbs) (Hayward and Kerley 2005)
        • Usually take much smaller prey
        • Single lions can bring down animals up to twice their own weight (Estes 2012)
    • Usually more reliant on at least 2-3 key prey species in an ecosystem
      • Zebra, warthog, blue wildebeest, impala, buffalo, and waterbuck frequently taken (Hayward and Kerley 2005; Loveridge et al. 2006)
      • Varies with location
        • E.g., porcupines and small mammals (e.g., mice) comprise a large portion of Kalahari lion diet (Eloff 1984)
    • Terrestrial Mammals
      • African buffalo, blue wildebeest, zebra, Thompson’s gazelle, warthog, impala, sable antelope, roan antelope, greater kudu, bushbuck, waterbuck, springbok, gemsbok, juvenile African elephant, giraffe, juvenile rhino, juvenile hippo, hartebeest, waterbuck, kob, eland, cheetah cubs, spotted hyenas, black-backed jackals, bat-eared foxes, mongooses, aardvark, porcupine, mice and other rodents, hares (Eloff 1984; Loveridge et al. 2006; Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; Davidson et al. 2013; West and Packer 2013)
      • Domestic livestock
    • Marine mammals
      • Brown fur seals on Namibian coast (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Birds (Eloff 1984; West and Packer 2013)
      • Vulture
      • Secretary bird
      • Ostrich and ostrich eggs
    • Fish
    • Reptiles
      • Includes tortoises and Nile crocodiles (Eloff 1984; West and Packer 2013)
    • Insects
      • E.g., termites
  • Prey items in India (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Frequently, chital deer
    • Occasionally sambar, nilgai, and domestic livestock

Hunting and scavenging

  • Some groups acquire most food by hunting (e.g., Kruger National Park woodlands) (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009, except as noted)
    • One study found 88% of dietary intake from own kills (Schaller 1972)
    • May make a large kill every week or so
      • May take smaller prey between large kills
    • Whole pride can feed on a large kill
      • Males feed first, followed by females and then young
    • May ambush prey at waterholes during dry season (Davidson et al. 2013; West and Packer 2013)
      • Serve as “passive traps”
  • Some groups frequently scavenge
    • Especially male lions
    • May be as low as 5% of food in arid environments with lower prey densities (Stander 1992)
    • May be as high as 53% of food (open plains habitat) (Schaller 1972)
    • Take kills from cheetahs, leopards, spotted hyenas, African wild dogs, and other lions (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; West and Packer 2013)
    • Methods of locating kills made by other predators
      • Watch vultures descending on kills (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
      • Listen (e.g., for squabbling of hyenas at kill) (West and Packer 2013)
  • Hunting success
    • Affected by many variables
      • Female group size, prey species and herd size, time of day, terrain, etc. (Funston et al. 2001; West and Packer 2013)
      • Presence of surface water or waterhole (Davidson et al. 2013)
    • Windy conditions and low moonlight appear to increase hunting success (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
      • Prey less able to detect proximity of lions
    • Lions hunting alone are less successful than those hunting with several other lions (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; West and Packer 2013)
    • Success rates
      • High: 38%, Kalahari (Eloff 1984)
      • Moderate: 23%, Serengeti (Schaller 1972)
      • Low: 15%, Etosha National Park (Stander 1972)
  • Survival of cubs affected by food availability (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
  • Safeguarding kills
    • Hyenas typically wait until lions abandon carcass to move in to feed (West and Packer 2013)
    • Presence of a male helps protect kills from scavenging by spotted hyenas (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Females may lose up to 20% of kills to spotted hyenas (Cooper 1991) and another 17% to other lions when male pride members are absent (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
  • If not enough prey (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Attack livestock
    • May attack humans

Hunting behavior

  • Learning plays an important role in hunting behavior (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
  • Risk of being severely injured while subduing prey (West and Packer 2013)
  • Stalk, followed by a quick charge (Schaller 1972)
  • Stalk sequence (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Body low to the ground
    • Crouch
    • Ears flattened
    • Eyes fixed on the target
    • Approach is slow and patient
      • Half an hour or longer
      • Freezes when prey is vigilant
    • Uses vegetation and uneven terrain as coverage
  • Attack sequence (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009, except as noted)
    • Launches attack when within striking range
      • Distance covered is crucial in hunting success
    • Tries to cut prey off by running ahead of it
      • Can run up to 45-60 km/h (28-37 mph) for short bursts (usually not more than 100-200 m) (Schaller 1972; Chassin et al. 1976; Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Attack rump or shoulders of prey, grabbing with claws
      • May slap thighs of smaller prey, causing it to slow, hesitate, or stumble
    • Holds on while biting, attempting to drag prey to the ground
      • Prey’s neck may break in the fall
    • Then, grabs by throat
      • Smaller prey: may use long canine teeth to severe the spinal cord
      • Larger prey: strangle/suffocate by crushing trachea
        • May hold for as long as 10 minutes
    • Feeds immediately
      • At site of kill or drags to nearby cover
    • Other specialized hunting techniques
      • Muzzle bite
        • Use body weight to drag prey down while grasping face
          • Observed with gemsbok and zebra
      • Jump on the backs of large animals (e.g., gemsboks, African buffalo)
      • Dig prey out from burrows (e.g., common warthogs) (West and Packer 2013)
  • Coordinated hunts by females
    • Most beneficial when tackling elusive or large prey; e.g., African buffalo (West and Packer 2013)
    • Strategize position in the hunt (Stander 1992; Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
      • Larger, heavier females may take ‘the center’
      • Others prevent escape of prey and chase towards ‘the center’
    • Males take part in as few as 3-4% of hunts (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
      • Are efficient hunters but concentrate on defending tenure over the pride
      • Help subdue large prey (West and Packer 2013)
  • Will hunt alone, in pairs, or as groups (Schaller 1972)
  • Prey selection and killing techniques differ among prides in the same area (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
  • Cubs learn to hunt (Schaller 1972)
    • Learn stalking and killing techniques by observing adults
    • Begin joining hunts at 11 months
    • Commonly participate by 15-16 months
      • Not yet large enough to subdue large prey on their own
      • Still dependent on adults for food until at least 2 years old
    • Fully skilled around 2.5 years of age

Feeding and drinking

  • Feeding
    • Adult males eat first (Schaller 1972; Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
      • Up to 40 kg (88 lbs) of meat at a time (1/4 of their body weight)
    • Adult females eat after males, alongside subadults
      • 14 kg (31 lbs) of meat per day, on average, during the wet season (West and Packer 2013)
      • Minimum daily food requirements: 5.0-8.5 kg of food per day (Serengeti National Park) (West and Packer 2013)
  • Guard kill sites (Schaller 1972)
    • Remain near large kills that cannot be consumed as a single meal
    • May leave a kill after gorging or locating a better meal (Schaller 1972)
      • Leftovers taken by scavengers
  • Digestion and feces
    • Usually consume all edible portions of prey (Schaller 1972)
      • Do not eat digestive organs, horns, or teeth
    • Hair of prey not well-digested (Zeke Davidson, personal communication, 2016)
      • Found in faeces
      • Used by scientists to help identify prey
      • Lions remove some hair while feeding using specially adapted tongue
    • Protein not well-digested (Zeke Davidson, personal communication, 2016)
      • High percentage found in feces
      • Consumed by other carnivores
        • Jackals, foxes, hyena, leopard, vultures, some eagles
  • Drinking (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Drink when water is available, but not dependent on it
    • Get moisture from prey and even plants (e.g., tsamma melon in Kalahari Desert)
    • Often drink after feeding, if water is available

Unusual Prey

Zebra, water buffalo, antelopes, and other medium- to large-sized ungulates are important prey for lions.

Above, Izu the Lion investigates a cardboard zebra (scented with real zebra odors) that was made by San Diego Zoo volunteers for enrichment.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

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