Foraging

Hunting

Lions either ambush approaching prey or move carefully to within striking distance. The final charge is usually less than 50 m; any further and the lion will overheat. If the prey is captured, the lion bites at the muzzle or throat to throttle it.

Lions will hunt cooperatively when tackling difficult prey, such as buffalo or giraffe in East Africa or springbok in open habitats in Namibia. But lions only occasionally cooperate when hunting prey that can easily be captured by a single lion. In such cases, pridemates typically stay back until their successful companion makes the kill.

Females are the most active hunters when pursuing small- or medium-sized prey such as warthog, gazelle, wildebeest or zebra, but males are better able to catch large prey such as buffalo and giraffe where bulk and strength are more important than speed or agility.

Scavenging

Lions will scavenge whenever the opportunity presents itself. The sight of vultures circling and landing can be irresistible, and lions also steal carcasses from wild dogs, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas and even other lions. Lions are such successful scavengers that wild dogs are unable to co-exist with them in areas of high lion density; cheetahs are only able to co-exist with lions by finding “behavioral refuges” where they can feed undisturbed. Lions and hyenas frequently scavenge from each other, but lions generally obtain the “lion’s share” before abandoning the carcasses to hyenas, who are able to digest skin and bones. Large groups of hyenas sometimes evict lions from an intact kill, but, overall, lions gain more food by scavenging from hyenas than vice versa.

Feeding

Once a prey animal has been captured, lions first feed on the viscera then work their way through the fleshy parts of the carcass. Most prey animals have thick hides and can most easily be entered through the soft skin of the abdomen, which lions shear with their carnassial teeth. Once the carcass has been opened, the feeding lions clasp on with their claws and prevent latecomers from joining the feast. Latecomers either try to shear through the skin at a different part of the carcass or wait until an access point becomes available. Males can displace females and subadults from a kill, but females and subadults generally respect each other’s ownership and wait their turn—there is no dominance hierarchy among females.

When prey is abundant, lions may only consume the viscera and leave the muscle tissue for the hyenas, jackals and vultures. Lions occasionally bury the rumen after feeding, but it is not known why. Lions sometimes consume small quantities of grass—presumably as a scour to remove intestinal parasites—but otherwise they live entirely off of vertebrate prey and are thus considered to be “hypercarnivores.”

The lions may gorge themselves until they become conspicuously uncomfortable, but once full, they can survive well over a week without feeding.