Getting by with a Little Help from Their Friends

Fierce and Fragile closes on March 13, 2016. Time is running out!

Fierce and Fragile closes on March 13, 2016. Time is running out!

If you visit the Bruce Museum over the next few days, you’ll be able to catch the end of one of our shows. “Fierce and Fragile: Big Cats in the Art of Robert Dallet” showcases the beauty and behavior of big cats.

Most wildcats, big and small, are solitary creatures. This is a system that works well for the feline body and lifestyle. Social animals, like wolves, need the help of pack members to bring down large prey. Cats can do it on their own. Their powerful and elastic muscles have evolved to hold onto struggling prey. Their sharp senses and lightning reflexes let them respond quickly to threats and opportunities. Cats are true gems of evolution when it comes to hunting.

Grey wolves and cougars have similar heights and weights (though some cougars grow much larger), but one cougar can kill prey that would take several wolves to take down. However, there is one notable outlier when it comes to the hunting habits of wildcats: Lions.

Lions are synonymous with prides, a social structure that usually contains between 5 – 6 adult females, 1 – 2 adult males, and their cubs. It took very specific evolutionary conditions to cause ancestral lions to abandon their solitary ways and start living in groups. 

The African savanna was and is very different from most places where cats live. It’s a very rich environment, with animal populations that are simultaneously dense and diverse. In a wide open and crowded habitat like the savanna, other animals notice when someone has fresh meat. When lions evolved, they shared the land with three large sabretooth cat species and two or more large hyena species. If an early lion couldn’t eat its kill quickly, it had a high chance of its food being stolen by a sabretooth or hyena.

Courtesy of Benh Lieu Song

Courtesy of Benh Lieu Song

An evolutionary arms race was on and lions needed to develop a way to protect their food in a place where competitors could be lurking around every tussock. Early lions probably started forming prides because it’s better to share your food with family than have that food stolen by another species entirely. A group of lions would have been able to chase off a lone opportunist sabretooth. Of course, food isn’t the only thing that lions have to worry about.

Male lions have a notorious reputation for infanticide. If a male lion encounters unrelated cubs he’ll do his best to kill them. Killing cubs causes the mother to go back into heat, meaning the cub-killing lion could have the chance to sire cubs of his own. Lionesses that raise their cubs in a pride have the advantage of numbers over a rogue lion. One lioness might back down when a single lion attacks, but that lion had better watch his back if he tries something with a group!

Males benefit from the pride structure as well. If a male lion manages to gain control of a pride, he has easy breeding access to a group of females. When lions form prides, everyone wins! Except for the bachelor males, that is.


Courtesy of Steve Garvie Male cheetahs can form groups called coalitions.

Courtesy of Steve Garvie

Male cheetahs can form groups called coalitions.

Other Social Cats

Just because other cats don’t spend all their time in prides doesn’t mean that they don’t have complex social lives. Even cats that never see each other can communicate using scent marks and vocalizations. Sometimes unrelated cats even share meals, as has been noted in mountain lions.

Breeding is another point when cats must come together. The mother does most of the work when it comes to caring for cubs, but leopards, tigers, and other cats can be good fathers. Leopards and tiger fathers sometimes linger around the family unit after the cubs are born. Other father cats might patrol the territory of a female he’s bred with, keeping away rival males that might kill the cubs and harm the female.

Domestic cats, unlike their solitary ancestors, are even more social than lions. Up to 40 feral cats can live together in a single colony. Within colonies, there are complicated levels of hierarchy and behavior. For domestic cats, learning to tolerate each other was a matter of necessity. The human world provides a lot of opportunities for both feral and kept domesticated cats to thrive. Domestic cats living together allows many to share abundant resources within a single territory. It pays to be able to tolerate your neighbor if it means everyone can eat!

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow

Courtesy of Joe Dzikiewicz Some domesticated cats are more social than others.

Courtesy of Joe Dzikiewicz

Some domesticated cats are more social than others.