Lions live in prides that consist of one primary male lion, several females and one or two lesser males. The primary male mates with his lionesses. Females might also mate with more than one partner. Several females are likely to be in heat at the same time. The pride leader, with first dibs on females in heat, might tire of them during their cycle; that's when the lesser males get an opportunity.
The Estrous Cycle
Lionesses are receptive to breeding only during their estrous cycles. Each estrus lasts between four and seven days, but the amount of time between cycles depends on the individual lioness. Younger lionesses might go in and out of estrus with only a few days in between, while the interval might last for months and up to a year in older lionesses. The average interval is approximately two months. After a lioness bears young, she might not go into estrus for 20 months while raising her offspring.
Generally, the largest, strongest male lion rules his pride, but most male lions rule their prides for only a few years. The pride leader defends his females and offspring from attack by predators, such as hyenas. As pride leaders age, younger, stronger males take their place. When a battle between males for pride rule takes place within the already established hierarchy, it might be fierce but not deadly. If a coalition of outside males tries to take over a pride, though, the outcome is usually different. There will be a fight to the death between the leader and the outsiders. Male lions established in a pride might fight for leadership but generally do not fight over females.
While female lions might produce their first litters by the age of 4, male lions might not start breeding until reaching the age of 5. Lions breed year-round -- and they mate a lot. Each act lasts between 8 and 68 seconds, occurring once every 25 minutes during the female's estrous cycle, according to the San Diego Zoo website. Approximately one-third of the sex acts results in pregnancy during each estrus cycle. All that mating is necessary because relatively few lion cubs make it to the 12-month mark.
Male Lions and Cubs
When a pride changes male leadership, it's bad news for the cubs of the old leader. Just as a domestic male tomcat will kill kittens sired by another tom, so will a male lion kill cubs sired by others. He might even eat them. A lioness will defend her cubs, but male lions are twice the size of females. If her cubs are killed, the female will enter another estrus cycle, and the new pride leader will mate with her. If the new pride leader allowed cubs to live, the mother might not come back into estrus until he no longer rules.
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Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.