What do Lions Eat?

lion on the hunt
Source: Flickr / Nick Jewell

In the wild, the lion preys upon virtually any large animal unlucky enough to get in its path. Lions roaming the sub-Saharan savannas and grasslands often rely upon zebras, antelope, giraffes and wildebeests for nutrition. Cape buffalo and pigs are also menu staples for the lion. Because this ferocious carnivore is an apex animal, it is nearly always the predator, rarely the prey.

Although lions generally feast upon larger animals, they also take smaller prey when the opportunity arises. Tortoises, lizards, birds, mice and hares are all potential meals for the lion. Kills from other carnivores – such as leopards, wild dogs, cheetahs, and hyenas – are sometimes stolen by the lion. Lions may also consume spoiled meat left over from other kills. Lions roaming near domestic villages have been known to prey on the local livestock, taking cows, pigs, and other animals.

Lions live in prides made up of three to 40 animals, but it is the lioness, lighter and smaller than the male, that does the hunting. Males in the group typically number no more than two, serving more as the pride’s protectors, guarding both lionesses and cubs from encroaching males from other prides.

Lion Pride - Joy of Animals
Source: Flickr / Richard Allen

The pride usually hunts only within its own “territory,” an area measuring around 100 square miles. Since many of the animals that lions eat are faster than the lioness, lionesses must work together to make a kill, with several members of the pride coordinating the takedown of a suitable target.

During the coordinated attack, which usually occurs under the cover of darkness, the lionesses in the hunt fan out around their intended target, forming a semicircle. The weakest of the lionesses work to herd the intended prey toward the center of the circle while the stronger members of the group charge the animal, knocking it down and going in for the kill. Most attacks are unsuccessful; only one out of six yields a meal.

Lions usually kill their prey by strangulation, biting down on the animal’s throat or its mouth and nose. Should a smaller animal fall prey to the lion, it is quickly dispatched with a fast bite to the head or a bat of the lion’s paw.

The lion’s powerful jaw and jaw muscles combined with its long, sharp and slightly curved teeth make it the ultimate killing machine. The canine teeth help it to grasp the prey and deliver deadly wounds, while its premolars are useful in tearing flesh from bone.
The male lions in the group usually eat first once the kill is made, followed by the pride’s lionesses. Males will frighten females away, if necessary, to eat their fill. Cubs eat whatever is left over.

A single lion kills an average of 13 large animals within a 12-month period, which is roughly one per month. Because of this, when lions eat, they gorge themselves on large quantities of meat. Researchers say this adaptation allows them to survive for long periods of time without a meal. The lion may eat up to 90 pounds of meat from just one kill, swallowing the food unchewed in large chunks. Typical prey weighs anywhere from 100 to 1,000 pounds.

The world’s lions fall into one of two categories: African or Asiatic. Most lions live in Africa, but there is a small population of lions that reside in India’s Gir Forest National Park. Asiatic lions, like their African counterparts, also prey on large animals from the local wildlife. Buffalo, sambhar, chital, nilgai and goats are common fare.

Lions kept in captivity generally eat foods such as ground beef or other beef cuts. The Smithsonian National Zoo feeds its lions ground beef that’s commercially produced to cater to the carnivore’s nutritional needs. The zoo also feeds its lions beef femurs and knucklebones twice each week and rabbits as a weekly treat to provide the big cats with exercise for their jaws and teeth.