We’re deep in bucket list territory here, as to see a lioness or a female leopard carrying her cub(s) is something very few people will ever be fortunate to experience in their lifetimes. And to be honest, if one is lucky enough to see it in the flesh, you’ll probably be so awed, so out of breath, or so busy scrambling to get your camera out that you’re unlikely to stop and consider the mechanisms by which this most gentle of transportations takes place.
I’ve seen a lion crush an antelope’s skull with one bite and I’ve watched gobsmacked as one of the Tsalala females clamped down on a 700 kilogram buffalo’s muzzle to suffocate it. Most visitors to Londolozi will have seen a lion’s teeth when it yawned, and those canines are pretty impressive, to say the least.
Yet I’ve watched the same jaws tenderly lift a tiny cub that barely weighs a kilogram and move it safely to a new den, then put it down as softly as you or I would set down a fragile china vase.
So how is it that some of the fiercest jaws in the business are able to transport something as small as a cub without hurting it?
It’s actually a lot simpler than it might seem.
Firstly, just because a lion can crunch through an impala femur like it was a cheese straw, doesn’t mean it has to. Lions have a certain amount of muscular control. They don’t always have to exert maximum force when they clamp their jaws shut. So much like we would realise that there’s a certain amount of finesse required when it comes to handling valuable porcelain, a lion- or leopardess is aware of the consequences of exerting too much force when carrying her offspring.
Secondly, the carrying act is a two-way street. In other words, the mother couldn’t carry her cub if it wasn’t cooperative. Whether this cooperation is voluntary or not is besides the point, but no matter the case, if the cub was to struggle or squirm about, it wouldn’t help matters much, and could delay the process, result in injury to the cub, or even result in its death if the mother was attempting to transport it out of danger.
To negate the potential impact of a wriggling cub, nature seems to have endowed cubs with special mechanisms that are induced when the neck is gripped; when the mother clamps down, cubs seem to go into an inert state in which the back legs curl up slightly and they refrain from struggling. This is theorised to partly be a reflex action, but it may also be largely because the cub knows that to struggle while clamped between sharp teeth could be slightly detrimental to its health. Tucking up its legs would also prevent it from catching on sharp thorns or objects that its mother passes.
The Tamboti female inhabits the south-eastern sections of Londolozi, having a large part of her territory along the Maxabene Riverbed.
A study conducted in 2013 looked at the responses of infant mice to transport by their mothers (young mice – known as pups – are also carried). Apparently the pups displayed a remarkable consistency in becoming limp and more compact immediately upon being picked up, even when it was by the researchers in a simple mimicking of the mothers grasp. The theory was that it was the feeling of being suspended in conjunction with the grip on the neck that induced the response. When a small amount of local anaesthetic was applied to the neck area of the pups, the response was lessened.
It is likely that the cubs of big cats (and small cats as well) are wired in a similar way; the grip of the mother on their neck and the simple matter of lifting them off the ground will induce them to relax, thereby making their transport a far easier prospect for their mother.
I have seen a leopard cub whining loudly as it strayed too far from the den, but as soon as the mother came over and grabbed it to move it back, it immediately became quiet.
Allied with the behavioural help that cubs give their mother, they are also equipped with much looser skin and fur on their necks, which has been found to contain fewer nerve endings. This means that the carrying process will not be as uncomfortable for them as one might imagine. Cats are apparently also not particularly vulnerable to injury or chocking around the neck (I’m not too clued up on the exact physiology here) which would be an added bonus.
The reality, sadly, is this is far more likely to remain as only a discussion point for most than an actual recounting of a sighting. I haven’t seen a cub being carried since early 2017, and I don’t think I’ll see it again anytime soon. It was always one of the things I never expected to see, right up there with a pangolin.
So I’m not going to hold my breath until the next time, if indeed there ever is one. I’ll do what we all should be doing when on game drive; simply be happy to out there, and let whatever happens, happen.