The Lion Lands

Fact: Lions may once have had the widest range of any cat.

Lynxes are the only modern wild cats that live in both the Old World and the New. (Wright and Walters) But Ice-Age lions might have ranged over all the northern continents as well as Africa.

It depends on which expert source you check.

The authoritative IUCN, which publishes the Red List of Threatened Species, says that lions used to live in Europe, Africa, southwestern Asia and India.

Now the lion lands have shrunk to parts of sub-Saharan Africa, mainly in the east and south, with a separate group in one Indian state. (AZA; Bauer and others)

No one disputes this history of lions, but some widely respected experts add that Leo also got into the Americas.

This would give it the biggest range of any known modern cat. (AZA)

Lions, say these experts, migrated from Asia over the Bering land bridge some 300,000 years ago.  Back then, the bridge was open because sea level was lower than it is today. (O’Brien and Johnson; Werdelin and others)

These scientists are counting two American fossil cats as lions – Panthera atrox, which often died at La Brea’s “tar” pits just like Smilodon, and P. spelea, a/k/a the cave lion. (Werdelin and others)

Supporters of the Old-World version say Atrox was more like a jaguar. Genetics is complicated, but molecular evidence may show that both Atrox and the cave lion were genetically separate from modern lions.

Good arguments for and against prehistoric lions in the New World are being made right now. (For more details, see discussions in Barnett and others; Davis and others; King; Switek; Werdelin and others)

It’s not yet a burning controversy, but the argument will go on for a while.  There just isn’t enough fossil evidence available to say for sure which viewpoint is closest to the truth. (Werdelin and others)

A solution is needed.  All lions today are on the Red List, some of them (in western Africa) critically endangered.  The more information conservationists have about the lion’s past, the better they can help these amazing and beautiful cats have a viable future.


Featured image: Gambar terkait, by actravelerpt at Pixabay. Public domain.

AZA Lion Species Survival Plan (and sources quoted within). 2012. Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Lion Care Manual. Silver Spring, Maryland, p. 143.

Barnett, R.; Zepeda Mendoza, M. L.; Rodrigues Soares, A. E.; Ho, S. Y. W.; and others. 2016. Mitogenetics of the extinct cave lion, Panthera spelea (Goldfuss, 1810), resolves its position within the Panthera cats. Open Quaternary. 2. p. 4. . Last accessed August 27, 2017.

Bauer, H.; Packer, C.; Funston, P. F.; Henschel, P.; and Nowell, K. 2016. Panthera leo (errata version published in 2017). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016:e.T15951A115130419.

Breitenmoser, U.; Mallon, D. P.; Ahmad Khan, J.; and Driscoll, C. 2008. Panthera leo ssp. persica. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008:e.T15952A5327221.

Davis, B. W.; Li, G.; and Murphy. W. J. 2010. Supermatrix and species tree methods resolve phylogenetic relationships within the big cats, Panthera (Carnivora: Felidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 56(1):64-76.

Haas, S. K.; Hayssen, V.; and Krausman, P. R. 2005. Panthera leo. Mammalian Species. 762:1-11.

Henschel, P.; Bauer, H.; Sogbohoussou, E.; and Nowell, K. 2015. Panthera leo (West Africa population). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015:e.T68933833A54067639.

King, L. M. 2012. Phylogeny of Panthera, including P. atrox, based on cranialmandibular characters. Electronic Theses and Dissertations, Paper 1444. . Last accessed June 6, 2017.

O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.

Sues, H-D. 2010. The “American Lion” is not a lion. . Last accessed August 27, 2017.

Switek, B. (and sources quoted within).  2011. American lion, or giant jaguar? In search of Panthera atrox. Accessed August 21, 2017.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, M., and Walters, S. 1980. The Book of the Cat New York: Summit Books.

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