Why are lions the only big-cat pack hunters?

Lions hunt in packs because they eat enormous animals such as wildebeest or giraffes that can be double the size of a single lion. They need to work together to take down such massive animals, which can be then shared with the rest of the pride. Other big cats feed on smaller prey that they can catch alone. Catching a lot of prey and sharing it out helps lions survive, but other feline species find success in catching smaller animals and keeping the meat to themselves.

Hunting in a pack guarantees every member of the pack will get a meal, so it’s a clever strategy that lions use to feed the entire family. Pack predation is useful to take down large animals that a lone hunting carnivore would have difficulty tackling. This is a strategy used by wild dogs, and only one group of big cats – lions. The favourite foods of lions include wildebeest, buffalo, and the occasional juicy gazelle. The hunting pack starts by silently stalking the animal, and then leaping to attack in order to subdue it. This prey is dragged back to the pride and shared, though not each member gets an equal portion.

Other big cat species such as leopards and cheetahs live and hunt alone, predating on smaller species such as springbok and hares. This strategy does have its advantages, and solitary cats such as cheetahs have developed incredible speed to ensure they can outrun their prey.

This is what animal behaviourists call a payoff matrix, where an animal has to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of their hunting strategy. Hunting in a pack helps catch big prey and guarantees every member gets a portion of the prey, even if that portion is small. This gives the entire pack a good chance of survival even if only a few hunters are successful. Hunting alone may be more difficult as an unsuccessful chase will leave the hunter tired and hungry, but when prey is caught the hunter does not have to share. These two strategies are successful in different ways, and over thousands of years have become embedded deep in the DNA of each species.

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