Whilst the behaviours of the pride over the past few months have been affected by mating and then cubbing, observations of the pride suggest that there has been a shift in the balance of power within the females of the group. The two lionesses vying for the coveted role of alpha female are Ashanti and Phyre.
Whilst there is no established hierarchy within a lion pride and no-consistent leader, a dominance system does exist. Males hold greater dominance over females due to marked sexual dimorphism; a particular adult female will often lead a procession, although several different lions may take the lead over the course of travel.
Lions exhibit a wide variety of peaceful social behaviours that have been well documented with two behaviour patterns promoting group cohesion more than any other and serve the same purpose as grooming does in many primate societies. Head rubbing as a greeting between familiar lions can be characterized either by two lions approaching each other and rubbing cheeks or by rubbing foreheads together before progressing to rubbing the face and neck. Such a greeting is often followed by one lion flopping over the other or resting adjacently.
Social licking, although less prevalent than head-rubbing, also helps to reinforce social bonds but can also be considered a utilitarian function as lions cannot clean their own head and neck. After feeding lions often lick the muzzles of pride mates to remove blood and is also common after rain, possibly helping to dry out the coat of another lion. Social licking may be brief but can also continue for as long as five minutes. It has been suggested that social licking in combination with head rubbing may indicate close functional relationships. Weaker or less dominant lions tend to initiate social interactions suggesting that such action may be an appeasement function and can be used therefore as an indicator of differing dominance levels with the pride.
When the pride was released at the Dollar Block site during 2007 / 8 Ashanti was the clear leader of the pride. But have things changed now that the pride in Ngamo?
During November and December the social patterns look like this. The blue bar is the number of interactions each lion initiated whilst the red bar shows the number of interactions received. The green bar is the difference between these two; the largest positive difference being a sign of greater dominance. As would be expected the smallest and youngest members of the pride; Nala & Narnia, are at the bottom of the pile and Milo, the male, is at the top. Ashanti is the clear alpha amongst the females. Phyre is clearly the most social of all the lions but had a relatively low dominance position.
But things look like they were already starting to change. During this period whenever a lion got up to initiate a move to a new area the order in which the lions followed the leader was recorded.
Of 22 such moves 45% were initiated by either Ashanti or Phyre with 32% being initiated by Phyre. Not all lions followed a move, but where both Phyre and Ashanti followed, regardless of whether they initiated the move themselves or whether all lions followed or not, Phyre was ahead of Ashanti on 92% of occasions.
In 2011 so far the picture seems to have changed significantly.
Of 20 observed moves 75% have been initiated by Ashanti or Phyre but now 50% have been initiated by Phyre suggesting she has the greatest influence on the movements of the pride.
And the social interactions chart now looks like this. Phyre’s position has improved dramatically placing her firmly ahead of Ashanti.
The results for Kenge and Athena, and no doubt for all of the lions, will have been affected by the birth of cubs in the site and the amount of time that our mothers have been away from the pride.
Another telling sign could be the interactions between Ashanti and Phyre specifically. However, during both time periods the number of interactions initiated towards the other equals the number of interactions received by the other; suggesting that they view each other equally.
But evidence from behaviours of the whole pride suggests that Phyre is the current alpha female and only time will tell as to whether she retains this position or if the balance of power will shift again.