Lions are the second-largest big cats in the world. They can reach weights up to 550 pounds and have incredible strength.
But they are still gracious members of the Felidae family and should have the same climbing abilities as other cats. Or should they?
Lions can climb trees, and can do so easily if they have good reason. However, their weight can be challenging to haul up vertically. That’s why most lions only climb trees to rest on a branch or survey their territory. With few exceptions, the lions spotted in trees are females. Males are much larger and they climb rarely.
Do Lions Climb Trees?
All lions can and will climb trees – as long as they are enticed. However, most lions choose not to climb.
To understand their choice, we must speak about big cat behavior and size.
Lions are the second-largest big cats in the world, right after tigers. They can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh up to 550 pounds. Due to their weight, lions aren’t particularly fond of dragging their bodies up a tree – or any other vertical surface, really.
In a way, lions are similar to grizzly bears. Grizzlies, too, can climb trees, but they often choose not to.
As the largest big cats in Africa, lions are apex predators who aren’t afraid of many animals. Most mammals that are strong enough to kill a lion are herbivores – including elephants, giraffes, and rhinos. In some habitats, lions also stay away from water buffalos and hippos.
Nile crocodiles and hyenas are the only two predators that could take out a lion, but only as long as the lion doesn’t have the backup of a pride.
Since lions generally live in groups – called prides – they don’t have to worry too much about their prey either. Once they catch something, the entire pride is there to protect the meal from scavengers and opportunistic carnivores.
Thus, lions don’t have the same need as jaguars and cheetahs to drag their prey up a tree. And this is why most lions are perfectly content with an exclusively terrestrial life.
How High Can Lions Climb?
There are no specific studies on the heights a lion can climb. However, it is generally believed that they can climb as high as they want as long as the branches are strong enough to support their weight.
Considering that lions can take vertical leaps of around 12 feet high, they can surely climb at least that height.
Even if lions can climb a tall tree, they rarely do it. More often than not, lions climb trees to rest above ground level but on the lowest branches.
This choice doesn’t come as a surprise; lions have an awkward climbing technique and likely get tired fast. Lower branches are also thicker and stronger than upper ones, offering lions a sturdier sleeping or resting place.
From their spot above the ground, lions can also jump down and take prey by surprise if they climb to survey the surroundings.
Can Lions Climb Fences?
Lions may or may not be able to climb a fence, depending on the material the fence is made of.
Generally, lions can climb any vertical surface that allows gripping. This includes chicken wire and wood fences. Fences made of smooth PVC or metal are often harder to climb because of the slippery surface.
However, this doesn’t mean that lions can’t get on the other side of the fence anyway.
We already mentioned that lions can jump about 12 feet high. Perhaps they won’t be able to jump over a fence that reaches that height, but evidence suggests they can jump over a 6-foot fence without trouble.
Why Can’t Some Lions Climb Trees?
Lions often prefer terrestrial life, and that leads many people to mistakenly believe that they can’t climb trees.
However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
All lions can climb trees. Some of them prefer not to for reasons that vary from physiological traits to body mass to motivation.
To begin with, lions aren’t built for climbing. Their strong and bulky bodies are constructed for wrestling heavyweight prey, and their backs are rather stiff.
Due to limited flexibility in back and limb bones, climbing a tree could result in a dislocated shoulder, for instance, if the lion is on the heavier side.
To put things into perspective, jaguars are built to climb trees; they have smaller bodies and flexible backs, and usually, go after smaller prey.
Another reason why lions don’t feel the need for climbing is their social structure. Lions are social animals and – with very few exceptions – live in prides.
A pride adds power, making lions invincible. They can fight off and even kill most animals, including hippos and elephants.
The pride can also protect the meal from other predators; hence, there is no need to drag it up to a safe spot.
Why Do Lions Climb Trees?
Considering the above, including the fact that lions live in prides and don’t have to go up a tree unless they want to, why do they do it? There are three main reasons:
To Escape Danger or Nuisances
As apex predators, adult lions are up on the food chain and they rarely become meals for other carnivores. Adult females in a pride also do a great job protecting the cubs. However, some animals could kill lions.
Examples include herds of elephants or water buffalos, as well as giraffes, rhinos, and hippos.
In areas where these mammals live in the same habitat as lions, such as Western Uganda or Southern Tanzania, lions are more likely to climb trees.
This habit allows them to avoid being trampled by heavy herbivores and steer clear of other ground nuisances like bugs.
To Escape Heat
Another common reason why lions climb trees is to escape heat. Resting a few feet above the ground ensures better ventilation and an easier temperature regulation in scorching weather.
The foliage also provides shade, keeping lions protected from the sun.
To Survey Their Surroundings
Lastly, lions climb trees because the advantage of height allows them to spot prey from a distance. This strategy can be particularly helpful for lone lions that need a vantage point when it comes to hunting.
Like all cats, lions can and will climb trees if they feel motivated enough. That said, lions don’t usually have to climb trees for survival. They also rarely pursue prey up a tree – these big cats live in prides and generally go after larger prey that doesn’t climb trees.
Generally speaking, it is near impossible to spot a lion in a tree, with some exceptions in Uganda and Tanzania.
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