Felids are most often classified as polygynous but can exhibit polygynandrous behavior as well. Estrous lasts from 1 to 21 days and females may have multiple estrous cycles until they become pregnant. Females advertise estrus to potential mates through vocalizations, scent marking, and restlessness. As with most polygynous species, males compete for access to mates via displays and fighting, and successful males court mates through vocalizations and direct physical contact (e.g., rubbing on the female). During courtship, successful males may also approach receptive females with their head lowered. While the act of copulation lasts less than a minute, multiple copulations can occur over a period of several days, which may help induce ovulation. After several days, males may leave in order to find additional estrous females, in which case another male takes his place.
In felids, male territories often encompass those of multiple females (for an exception see Panther leo) and males mate with females that reside within his territory. Most conspecific interactions occur during mating season or as a result of territorial disputes among rival males. Indirect interactions via scent markings or vocalizations help reduce the number of fatal interactions.
Mating System: polygynous ; polygynandrous (promiscuous)
The act of copulation is aggressive and brief and may be repeated multiple times an hour for several days. Repeated copulation is thought to induce ovulation in females. Most species are polygynous and polyestrous, with estrous cycles lasting from from 1 to 3 days. Most felids are non-seasonal breeders, but in areas of extreme climatic or prey variability, parturition occurs during the most favorable times of the year. Small-bodied cats tend to have 3 litters per year, while large cats average 1 litter every 18 months. The interval between birthing events may depend on maturation rates of young, body size, food availability, or recent loss of litter. For example, if a female loses her litter, she can come into estrus within a few weeks. Although most litters contain 2 to 4 cubs, females can give birth to as many as 8 cubs in a litter. Gestation lasts from 2 months in small cats to 3 months in lions and tigers.
Felid cubs are born altricial, as newborns are often blind and deaf, rendering them defenseless. Mothers often hide newborns in dens, rock crevices, or tree hollows until they are mobile. Cubs remain with their mother until they can hunt on their own. Weaning begins at the introduction of solid food and ranges in length from 28 days (domestic cats) to 100 days (lions and tigers). Felids reach sexual maturity in less than a year for small cats and up to 2 years for large cats. Typically, cats do not produce their first litter until they have established a home range, which usually does not occur until they are 3 or 4 years of age. Although age of independence is highly variable, many species become independent around 18 months of age. Unlike most felids, lions are very social and females take turns nursing young born to other pride members (i.e., communal nursing) while absent mothers are hunting for food.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); induced ovulation ; viviparous
With the exception of lions, females are the sole caretakers of young felids. Mothers hide their cubs in dens, rock crevices, or tree hollows while they are away hunting and young hide until she returns. Weaning begins at the introduction of solid food, around 28 days in domestic cats (Felis domesticus) and 100 days in lions. Females teach cubs how to stalk, pounce, and kill. Weaning is complete when cubs can eat meat and help hunt for prey. Juvenile felids spend a majority of their time “role playing,” which helps develop important hunting skills. Juveniles are independent once they become competent hunters, though they may remain in their mother’s territory for up to a year before they establish their own. Most felids do not begin reproducing until they have their own territories. Although male lions use infanticide to eliminate unrelated young during pride takeover events, they also provide a significant degree of parental care to their own offspring, protecting cubs while they feed and allowing mothers to rest.
Parental Investment: altricial ; female parental care ; pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); extended period of juvenile learning
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- Patterson, B. 2007. On the Nature and Significance of Variability in Lions (Panthera leo). Evolutionary Biology, 34: 55-60.
- Ramel, G. 2008. "The Cats (Family Felidae; Order Carnivora)" (On-line). The Cats. Accessed February 24, 2009 at http://www.earthlife.net/mammals/cats.html.
- Sunquist, M., F. Sunquist. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.