by Natalie Angier

New York Times article of Tuesday, April 18, 1995

For most group-living species, the definition of social means knowing your place and showing it at every opportunity. In rare cases, however, the assembled animals do not bother forming a dominance hierarchy, preferring instead a form of relaxed anarchy. The most outstanding example of a species that lives in a stable group without bothering to assign rank to its citizens is the lion.

Within a pride, the resident males clearly dominate the females, and the adult females in turn take precedence over the cubs when it comes to divvying up the prey. But the great cats do not establish class systems along gender lines, as social animals usually do. If there are multiple males in the pride, they all behave like lazy, surly, demanding princes; while the females, who may number 20 per group, live in a democratic sisterhood, with no single lioness displaying pretensions of royalty.

In fact, when Dr. Packer and his wife, Dr. Anne Pusey, also at the University of Minnesota, first started studying lions in the Serengeti region of Africa in the 1970s, they were told by other scientists that the carnivores did not form any obvious class system, but they refused to believe it. After years of watching primates flaunt their social status, we thought there has to be rank among lions, said Dr. Packer. They soon realized that they were wrong, and they have since sought to understand how the lions keep the peace among themselves without a top-down structure, particularly during high-stress situations, like breeding and feeding.

It turns out that lions adhere to what the renowned evolutionary biologist Dr. John Maynard Smith of the University of Sussex in England calls the bourgeois strategy, the principle that whoever gets to a piece of property first - be it meat or a mate - is the de facto owner of that property. For example, if a group of lionesses pulls down a wildebeest, the lioness closest to where the best pickings are... essentially owns that neighborhood, and gets to eat her fill there. When she is finished and waddles off, the lioness nearest her old spot will move in to finish whatever is left. Dr. Packer and Dr. Pusey have noticed that if female A was at the choicest part of the prey after one kill, female B or C will be at the best table the next time. Similar roles of proximity dictation possession apply when it comes to mating.

Why should lions live by egalitarian rules when most other social creatures do not? Dr. Packer suggests that lions are simply too deadly and well-armed to manage otherwise. When two baboons or chimpanzees get into a fight, the victor usually emerges with only a few scratches and maybe a bit of ear gnawed away. But if two lions start quarreling, even a younger, smaller animal can inflict severe if not fatal wounds on her older, bigger antagonist. A lion has claws that can disembowel a zebra, as well as those godawful teeth, so an inferior could cripple a better opponent, said Dr. Packer. It's like a cold war, with mutually assured destruction. It's better not to mess around with your opponent in the first place.

Or perhaps, like the martial arts, when you know you have the power, you don't need to use it. Also, as you may already know, it's the lionesses who do the hunting and killing while the males lie around like lazy, surly princes. Although the males do protect the pride - but from whom?