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Lions Like to Cuddle Too


Who doesn’t love a good cuddle? A study published today in PLOS ONE demonstrates that lions are no different than us when it comes to snuggling, though they’re not only in it for the warm fuzzies. Researchers studying captive lions at the Tama Zoological Park, Tokyo, found that affectionate behavior between individual lions helps foster bonds and strengthens the pride as a whole.

Physical exchanges were common throughout the observed group of lions, though the males and females seemed to prefer different methods for showing their affection. While about 97% of observed licking occurred between lionesses, male lions in the zoo seemed to prefer the head rub, and directed a serious portion of their head-rubbing efforts towards other males. Females also used the head rub, but mainly in interactions with males in the group and less frequently with other females. Almost all behaviors were reciprocated, especially between males and females.


Researchers investigated why these behaviors differed from the affiliative behaviors seen in other animals, as well as the reasons for the apparent discrepancy between male and female behaviors. They postulate that shared group odors may explain why lions specifically choose to rub heads instead of any other behavior —the spotted hyena, for instance, exposes its genitals upon greeting members of the group. The lionesses licking each other could be an extension of their maternal behavior and instincts normally shown towards their cubs. More research, particularly on the behavior of lions in the wild, is needed before we can say for sure.

While we don’t have any final answers on affectionate behavior between captive lions, this research reveals how these behaviors affect this pride’s group dynamics. In the wild, coalitions of male lions compete for the right to live among, and mate with, the lionesses of an established pride. Once a group of males has settled itself in a pride, they must be on the offensive at all times to ward off attacks from gangs of nomadic male lions. Understandably, greater numbers means greater power and a better chance of standing strong against outside invaders. So, how does a group of unruly male lions keep its numbers high? Head-rubbing seems to be at least part of the equation.

Citation: Matoba T, Kutsukake N, Hasegawa T (2013) Head Rubbing and Licking Reinforce Social Bonds in a Group of Captive African Lions, Panthera leo. PLoS ONE 8(9): e73044. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073044

Image:  Image from Figure 1 of the manuscript

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