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How Do Lions Hunt? Why They Are Great Hunters

Lions hunt by stalking their prey. They are apex predators and considered among the greatest predators in the world. Lions successfully use group tactics when hunting, which coupled with their immense strength makes them a menacing foe. They can kill even some of the largest animals in Africa, like giraffes and elephants.

Chances are when you think of the word “predator”, an image of a lion pops into your head. This is quite fitting since lions are some of the deadliest hunters in the world.

They are large, powerful, and intelligent. Lions can use group tactics to take down even the largest prey, although a lone lion is an effective predator by itself.

Lions are well known for their hunting prowess. But how do they actually hunt? What tactics do they use, and how do they kill their prey?

We’ll answer all these questions and more about how lions hunt, in this article.

How Do Lions Hunt?

Lions hunt by stalking their prey, although they also do hunt by ambushing. They aren’t the fastest runners and don’t have the greatest stamina either. What they lack in speed and endurance, lions make up for in power and smarts. They successfully use their strengths to their advantage. Lions’ group hunting abilities are some of the best in the animal kingdom.

These majestic animals are apex predators. This means lions are the top of the food chain in their habitats and they don’t have any natural predators.

Their status as amazing hunters can’t be questioned. However, there are tactics that suit them better than others. Lions are versatile and can attempt to catch prey in three ways:

  1. Stalking
  2. Ambushing
  3. Chasing

1. Stalking

Lion Stalking

Stalk hunting consists of getting as close to the prey as possible before attacking. Staying unseen is key for stalking to be successful. After getting within killing range, the predator can deliver a quick attack to kill the prey.

Stalking is lions’ favorite style of hunting. They are well camouflaged in the environment and can move close to their prey without being spotted. Once they get close, lions are strong enough to surprise and quickly take down their prey.

Despite being great predators, lions regularly fail hunts. They regularly approach prey from upwind, which usually alerts it to their presence. But these felines also use this to drive animals into ambushes.[1]

2. Ambushing

Lion Ambushing

Ambush hunting involves finding a spot close to which prey is likely to travel. Ambush hunters regularly wait for hours on end for prey to get close to them. Once it’s close enough, they launch their attack.

During the day, when stalking animals is harder, lions generally hunt by ambushing their prey. This allows them to avoid attracting unnecessary attention by moving.

Much like they do after stalking, lions launch their attack when they are close enough to their prey. They prefer being as close as possible, giving other animals less time to react.

Ambush hunting is energy efficient, as the predator doesn’t expend much energy while waiting for the prey. Ambush hunting and stalking are good ways for predators to catch prey that is faster than themselves.[2]

3. Chasing

Lion Chasing

Chasing prey, also known as pursuit hunting, is the most energy-taxing hunting style. Pursuit hunting takes endurance and speed and it can be hard to sustain for long periods of time. Predators will typically get as close as possible before beginning the chase.

Lions typically chase their prey only over short distances, after springing an attack from stalking or ambushing it. Individual lions don’t have enough energy to chase prey for a long time.

Lions aren’t great at chasing their prey due to three factors:

  • They are heavy and muscular: Lions can exert a lot of force in a short time.
  • They aren’t fast enough: Although they can run faster they don’t generally go over 37 miles per hour.
  • They have small hearts: Their hearts are small relative to their body weights, making their stamina a weak point.

Lions mitigate some of their weak points in chasing by using group tactics.

Lone Lion vs. Group Hunting

Lions are well-known as social animals. They usually hunt as part of a group, as lone lions are less effective. Lions are powerful predators. They are capable of taking down substantial prey by themselves. Large animals, like giraffes and African buffaloes, are harder to hunt alone and represent a higher risk of injury or even death.

Lions are the most social wild feline in the world. They form complex groups and they use their numbers to their advantage, to hunt, defend themselves, and raise cubs.

These social felines are powerful enough to hunt large animals, such as zebras or wildebeests, by themselves. 

Lions have several great tools in their arsenal:

  • Power: They have a powerful muscular build that helps them grab prey and drag it to the ground.
  • Claws: Their claws are around one inch long. They’re sharp and once lions grab their prey they won’t let go easily.
  • Bite: They have a bite force of around 1,000 PSI and use it to kill their prey.
  • Camouflage: Lions have evolved to blend into their dry environment. Lions’ colors make them hard to see amidst the tall grasses.
  • Intelligence: Lions are smart. They effectively stalk or ambush their prey to mitigate some of their physical disadvantages.
Lone Lion vs. Group Hunting

Group Hunting

Group hunting is one of the main reasons why lions can comfortably sit at the top of the food chain. Cooperation is among the most efficient tactics in the animal kingdom.

While a solitary lion may struggle while hunting large animals, such as giraffes and African buffaloes, a group of lions is much more efficient. Daring lions’ pride can even kill elephants, although they generally target juveniles.[3]

Lions have well-defined roles while hunting in groups, and respecting these roles leads to a higher success rate in hunts:

  • Wings: Wings are usually younger, lighter, and more agile lions. Their role is to encircle prey and push it toward the center.
  • Centers: Centers are generally stronger and heavier lions. Their role is to wait in ambush or stalk closer to the prey and wait for the wings to push it toward them. Centers are the ones who deliver the killing blows.

Lions usually find their preferred role in their youth, they naturally gravitate toward being a center or a wing. They aren’t stuck with their role and switch between them as needed.

Hunts have a higher success rate when members perform their preferred roles.[4]

Group hunting also allows lions to chase their prey better. Lions take turns attacking and chasing their prey, exerting the group as a whole much slower.

Related article: Groups of Lions

Lion Prey

Lions can prey upon most of the other animals found in their environments. They don’t typically waste energy by catching small prey. Lions generally target large ungulates like zebras, wildebeests, and African buffaloes. These felines can also hunt elephants, rhinos, and hippos, but they usually go for juveniles.

Lions are large carnivores and they need a lot of meat to survive. They need to eat about 11 to 15 pounds of meat daily on average, but they usually gorge themselves every couple of days.

Because they need considerable amounts of meat to sustain their large bodies, lions generally hunt for large animals, especially ungulates:

  • Wildebeest
  • Zebra
  • African buffalo
  • Gemsbok and Elands
  • Giraffe
  • Deer

If smaller prey is abundantly available, lions will also hunt for warthogs, porcupines, monkeys and small antelopes like dik-diks.

Groups of lions are capable of killing large animals like rhinos, hippos, and even elephants. They generally target juveniles or infirm individuals of these species.

Related article: What Do Lions Eat?

Lion Prey

How Do Lions Kill Their Prey?

Lions generally kill their prey by pouncing on it, dragging it to the ground, and strangling it with their powerful bites. They occasionally strangle their prey by biting its muzzle and not allowing it to breathe.

Lions generally kill their prey by strangling it. They use their strength to slow down animals and drag them to the ground before delivering a killing blow.

When they have to chase prey over short distances, lions usually attack the back legs and spine of large herbivores. Their bites can damage targets’ nerves in the spinal cords, leaving them unable to run.

Once the prey is on the ground, lions strangle it, either by biting down its throat or its muzzle. Smaller animals can be killed instantly by a lion’s powerful bite.[5]

When Do Lions Hunt?

Lions are versatile predators and they can hunt at any point throughout the day. They are generally more active at night and around dusk and dawn. They hunt whenever the opportunity shows itself, and they don’t mind being active during the day.

Lions are adaptable predators that are active and hunt during the night as well as the day. Their activity and hunting pattern varies according to region, season, and available prey.

They prefer being active at night, and generally hunt around dawn. Lions can also hunt during the day and they will jump at any opportunity.

When Do Lions Hunt

How Often Do Lions Hunt?

Lions hunt daily, or several times a day. They are opportunistic predators and hunt whenever they get the chance.

They don’t hunt after eating large meals, as all members of the group are full. If they can’t eat their prey all at once they guard it against scavengers and finish it later. Lions are unlikely to hunt while they are guarding a kill.[6]

Lion vs. Lioness Hunting

Both lions and lionesses hunt, in spite of the myth that only females do so. Lions are larger and can take down larger prey by themselves, while lionesses are more agile. In a pride, males don’t generally hunt because females allow them to eat first.

Lions are larger than lionesses, which makes them more powerful: 

TraitMaleFemale
Length (Without Tail)6 ft – 6 ft 10 in5 ft 3 in – 6 ft
Weight350–500 lbs240–316 lbs
StaminaWeakSlightly better

Males don’t usually partake when the pride hunts, but females allow them to eat first anyways. Lionesses are lighter and they have better stamina.

Male lions that aren’t part of a pride can hunt by themselves without much difficulty. Lions also form coalitions which are made up exclusively of males and they cooperate when hunting.

Solo males are as successful in hunts as females are in prides. They avoid chasing prey even more since their stamina is low. They generally ambush prey waiting for it to get as close as possible before pouncing on it for the kill.[7]

Related: Lions vs. Lionesses

Conclusion

Lions hunt their prey by stalking or ambushing it before delivering a killing blow with their powerful bites. Chasing isn’t ideal for them, due to their weak stamina, but, when using group hunting, they can effectively chase prey. They generally hunt at night and around dawn but they can jump into action whenever an opportunity arises. Lionesses are generally the ones that hunt for the pride. When male lions hunt, they generally ambush their prey to chase it as little as possible.

About Codrin Frunzete

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