The social glue in lion prides
December 21 2013

An academic research paper titled ‘A Social Network Analysis of Cohesion in a Constructed Pride:  Implications for Ex Situ Reintroduction of the African Lion (Panthera leo)’ written by the ALERT research team in collaboration with Morgan Kirzinger of Canada’s University of Regina, has been accepted for publication in PLOS One, following peer review.   Download the full article here.

This study on our pioneering Ngamo pride examines social bondedness.  The research seeks answers to such questions as: What are the relationships between individual lions in the pride?  Who helps keep the pride together?  Is the pride socially stable? 

Phyre

The formation of a socially cohesive and stable pride is one of our two essential criteria for lions in the release stages of our program.  Wild lions live in prides for good reason; pride life facilitates territorial defence, hunting, and protection of young.  Prides are usually based on kinship, as related females often remain in their natal group.  However, in ex situ programmes, such as ALERT’s, prides may comprise related and unrelated females.  Unable to rely solely on kinship ties to hold them together, we need to assess if social cohesion is possible under such circumstances.  This research used Social Network Analysis to investigate the relationships between individual lions in the Ngamo pride, focusing on their social interactions such as greeting, play and social licking.  This analysis identifies ‘keystone’ individuals, who are the most social members of an animal group.  They play a key role in holding groups together; forming bridges between other individuals who might not readily associate with one another.  

This paper explores the differing levels of sociality in our Ngamo pride, and notes the keystone role that Phyre plays, acting as social glue, helping to hold this pride together.  Not only is Phyre the pride’s current alpha female, she’s also the most sociable.  Whilst we had insufficient data to include the Dambwa pride in this study due to the shorter time frame that this pride has been released, preliminary analysis suggests that Loma plays the keystone role.  Loma however is not the alpha female of the Dambwa pride indicating that the most dominant female is not always the most social.

This is the first published work to explore the social networks that exist within a lion pride and has implications for conservation practices. Our findings suggest that individual lions differ in terms of their sociality within a pride.   Pride structure is often disrupted as a consequence of retaliatory killing, problem animal control and wild-to-wild translocation.   In all scenarios, the removal of keystone individuals may have negative consequences for the pride.  We propose that wild lion research using a social network analytic approach is needed such that we can assess the extent to which such actions affect prides. 

Our Ngamo pride have achieved the criteria of social stability.  The second criteria for success is that they can successfully hunt and sustain themselves with food.  We invite you to watch these two short videos; the first of which shows the sub-adult KE3 taking down and successfully dispatching a zebra, and the second which shows sub-adult AT1 successfully hunting impala.  Please note that these videos contain images you may find distressing.  Both of these sub-adults were born to the Ngamo pride post release and have learnt their survival skills from the adults of the pride, with no human contact.

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