Asiatic lioness adopts leopard cub

February 28, 2020 • 9:00 am

by Greg Mayer

A paper just published by Dheeraj Mittal and colleagues in Ecosphere reports an Asiatic lioness (Panthera leo persica) that adopted a leopard (Panthera pardus) cub, nursing and feeding it along with its own two cubs for six weeks.

Asiatic lioness, leopard cub, and lion cub in the Gir Forest, India. Photo by D. Mittal.

As WEIT readers know, Asiatic lions survive in only a single relict population in Gujarat in northwestern India, where they coexist with leopards (but not tigers, which have been extirpated in Gujarat). As the only lions in all of Asia, they are carefully monitored by Indian wildlife biologists, and in December 2018 they spotted the leopard cub in the company of the lions. From the paper:

Contrary to the accepted understanding of lion–leopard interactions, in December 2018, we came across an adult free-ranging Asiatic lioness (Panthera leo persica) taking care of a leopard cub (P. pardus fusca) in addition to her own young cubs in the Gir forests of Gujarat, Western India (Fig. 1A). Over the course of the next one and a half months,we intimately monitored this lioness that was recorded to nurse the leopard cub and rear it as her own (Fig. 2). The leopard cub (a male of~2 months with characteristic blue haze in its eyes that indicated its very young age; Fig. 1B) was always found to be associated with the lioness: suckling from her, feeding from kills that she made, and playing with its foster siblings (Fig. 2). The prolonged duration and the ecological context of the observed foster care between these two sympatric and competing felids are bizarre and stimulate intriguing behavioral questions.

The New York Times interviewed one of Mittal’s co-authors, Stotra Chakrabarti of the University of Minnesota.

“The lioness took care of him like one of her own,” nursing him and sharing meat that she hunted, Dr. Chakrabarti said.

His new siblings, too, were welcoming, playing with their spotty new pal and occasionally following him up trees. In one photo, the leopard pounces on the head of one of his adoptive brothers, who is almost twice his size and clearly a good sport. “It looked like two big cubs and one tiny runt of the litter,” Dr. Chakrabarti said.

He has been studying the park’s lions for nearly seven years. This unlikely association “was surely the most ‘wow’ moment I’ve come across,” Dr. Chakrabarti said. His fellow researchers with an Asiatic lion conservation project in India, some who have been watching the big cats for decades, had “also not seen anything like this,” he said.

Sadly, the leopard cub was found dead after about six weeks. An autopsy revealed that it died of a congenital femoral hernia; it had not been abandoned or killed by the lions, and, given its condition, it was probably doomed from the start.

From an evolutionary perspective, rearing an allospecific cub would not be advantageous. Indeed, leopards and lions are competitors, and will kill one another as opportunity arises.  But, to paraphrase Yoda, the Baby Schema is strong with this one, and the juvenile features of essentially all amniotes that elicit the “awwww” response in humans seems to work in lions, too. It leads in this instance to what Mittal el al. call a nonadaptive ‘reproductive error’.

Mittal, D, S. Chakrabarti, S.B. Khambda, and J.K. Bump. 2020. Spots and manes: the curious case of foster care between two competing felids. Ecosphere 11(2):e03047. pdf

6 thoughts on “Asiatic lioness adopts leopard cub

  1. Fascinating. I wonder how the lioness came to adopt the leopard cub. One scenario might be the lioness attacked and killed the leopard mother while on a hunt. The cub triggered nurturing instincts in the lioness. Another scenario might be that the cub became lost in the grass when the his parent ran off for some reason.
    In any event, it’s pretty amazing. Sad to see that the cub did not survive. I wonder how things would have worked out if the panther had grown to maturity withing the matrix of the lion family. At some point it would have to head out on it’s own, I assume.

  2. “Awwww” indeed. A shame about the sad ending, and also that we will never know about the circumstances in which this unexpected relationship was formed.

  3. I was in Gir couple of weeks ago, during a visit to India. Here are some videos,

    We surprised a lioness and three cubs – couldn’t get my phone camera ready in time, but did capture the lioness and glimpses of the cubs,

    Two lionesses eating a kill,

    Buffalo and Maldharis,

  4. A very sad end, from both the personal perspective of the animals and the scientific perspective of the observational opportunity.

    It makes me wonder if the cub was abandoned by his biological mother because she smelled something wrong with it that the lions, being a different species, couldn’t quite pick up on (of course, maybe she was just killed by the lions or something).

  5. I wonder if this is really as non-adaptive as it might seem. One can imagine that there might be an optimal litter size for the lions, and that mothers with fewer cubs might run an increased risk of losing all of them to predators. Adding an adopted runt to a small litter might afford some degree of protection to the mother’s own cubs. So it’s at least conceivable that the urge to adopt in such circumstances might be selected for.

    I have no idea how to test this hypothesis, but it’s not obvious to me that it should be dismissed out of hand.

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