A Serengeti Soap Opera

### Today’s story is a guest post by Craig Packer, Director of the Serengeti Lion Project. He’s currently in Tanzania, and will soon be bringing home Dead Camera Centerpieces for our Indiegogo donors! ##

Orphans 2

This may look like the prototypical lion family – mom, dad and cub – but it is unique. The two adults, SU5 and SU6, are littermates, and they are the older siblings of the male cub, SU9.  The adults have been raising SU9 since their mother died in December, when he had only just been weaned. This sort of adoption is extremely rare in any species, and it’s the first time we’ve seen it in the lions.

When SU5 and SU6, were born, their mother’s pride contained a healthy number of four females. But two died before SU5 & SU6’s first birthday, and a third died when SU5 & SU6 were 2.5 yrs old, leaving the mother, SU-K, as a solitary. Solitary female lions must confront the terrifying circumstances of living alone in a world filled with vicious gangs of neighbors, so solitaries often remain unusually close with their subadult offspring, and SU-K was remarkably tolerant of 3-yr-old SU5 and SU6 when she gave birth to three new cubs, SU8, SU9 and SU10, in May 2012.

Solitary females almost never rear cubs successfully, so it was truly extraordinary that SU-K managed to keep her three youngest cubs alive while also dealing with the needs of SU5 and SU6. Then SU-K was killed by a large neighboring pride in mid-December; SU8 and SU10 disappeared the same day as their mother, and we assumed that SU9 must have died as well. But we found 11-mo-old SU9 with his big brother, SU6, in April — and the two of them were seen with their sister, SU5, the following month.

Now all three siblings are constantly together, and they moved about 10 miles from their wet-season hangout before returning to the eastern Simba kopjes just a few days ago.  The female is now a full-grown adult, but when I saw her two weeks ago, she was stalking a small herd of Grant’s gazelle in a fairly hopeless situation.  All three lions were in good condition — it looked like they had eaten their fill a few days earlier.  On the open plains, lions mostly feed themselves by scavenging from cheetah kills.

Besides the miracle of keeping their younger brother alive for the past 9 mos, the most fascinating part of the story is that if SU9 can survive another year or so, he will form a coalition with SU6 – and as a member of a pair, SU6 will be far more likely to take over a proper pride someday – so SU6 really needs his little brother.

I have no idea whether SU5 has any inkling of the advantages to her brothers from teaming up — or if she’s just glad to have company!


About ali swanson

I'm an ecologist studying how large carnivores coexist. I spend way too much of my time trying to stop hyenas and elephants from munching my camera traps!

One response to “A Serengeti Soap Opera”

  1. kathryn mcdonald says :

    I love the blogs – almost feel I am in Africa. Maybe one day I can reach my dream of seeing the Great Migration.

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