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When a females comes into heat (every 3 to 4 weeks on the average), the first male that finds her becomes temporary consort. The other males in the pride usually respect his right and wait their turn without challenging him. Besides draining their precious energy, a fight at this point would be bad politics. Males need one another to fight off marauding gangs and are therefore hesitant to tarnish their esprit de corps or disable a team member. Besides, the male that is waiting his turn is usually related to the consort, so even though he's not the one mating, some of his genes are still being passed on.
The best reason for waiting without a fuss, however, is the opportunity eventually knocks for all the males. It would be impossible for a single male to keep up the sexual pace set by the estrous female. Once she comes into estrus and for the next several days, she will mate every 15 minutes on the average! At the same time, other females in the pride are coming into estrus, making even more matings with two females, copulating a total of 157 times in 55 hours. He mated every 21 minutes on the average, with a breathing space ranging form 60 seconds to as long as 110 minutes, leaving little time for normal pursuits, including eating.
Courtship usually takes place in the open, sometimes away form the rest of the pride. The male and female circle each other restlessly, performing a typical sequence of displays. The male signals his intention with a mating grimace, a sneezelike snarl in which he wrinkles his nose, pulls by his lips to expose his teeth, opens his mouth slowly, and rolls his head from side to side without a sound. It is similar to the defensive snarl except he makes no sound and opens his mouth quite slowly. If the female doesn't immediately crouch in the mating posture, the male may move to her and begin to lick her fur, as if to groom her. If she still isn't ready, she may get up and move away a few steps, tail looped high, with the male following her in a tight mating chase. Eventually, the female turns her rump toward the male, lowers her forequarters, and elevate her hindquarters in a crouched presenting posture.
Females are by no means passive in the courtship sequence. In one study, they initiated courtship in 57% of the cases by circling the male, rubbing against him, curling themselves around him, or crouching in front of him. Females tend to solicit males in captivity even more frequently than they do in the wild. You'll see them presenting repeatedly, often treading with their forepaws as they do. Zookeepers have also noted that estrous females often roll on their back, grabbing their own hind paws and biting them. If you see a female doing this, you may want to stick around to see what happens.
Excerpted from The Secret Language & Remarkable Behavior of Animals. Copyright (c) 1998 by Janine M. Benyus. Reprinted by permission of BD&L.