The reproductive cycle begins when a female becomes sexually receptive, a condition known as “estrus”. Males periodically sniff the female and her urine for signs of oncoming receptivity. In the final days before estrus, a male will often follow the female until she is ready to mate. Females may also solicit mating with agitated tail movements, “walking sinuously past” a male and assuming a mating position. During mating, the male often bites the female on the back of her neck; as the male starts to dismount, the female often snarls with bared teeth and swats at the male while rolling over on her back.
Females remain in estrus for approximately four days, mating 2–3 times an hour. The “consorting” male actively guards the estrus female from his companions, and fighting occurs if another male gets too close. If females fail to conceive they will re-enter estrus approximately two weeks later.
Lions give birth 3.5 months after conception and hide their cubs in dense thickets or kopjes until they are old enough to join the rest of the pride at about 5–6 weeks of age. Cubs subsist entirely on their mother’s milk until they are about six weeks old and are weaned by about eight months of age but remain dependent on their mothers until their second birthday. Females that lose their litters return to estrus within a week, otherwise mothers do not begin to breed again until their cubs are about 18 months old. Mothers will fight to the death to protect their cubs but will abandon starving cubs if they cannot provide for them.
Resident males sire all the cubs born their tenure in a pride and contribute to the care of their offspring. Fathers not only protect their cubs from strange lions, they also capture prey animals that are too large for the mothers to catch—and a buffalo or giraffe carcass will easily feed an entire pride. Males generally remain at a distance from the maternity group when the cubs are small, but older cubs will approach and try to play with their fathers. Occasionally an adult son will join his fathers’ coalition and move with them to a new pride.