Species Fact: Lions

This beloved wild cat needs no introduction.

However, it might surprise you to hear that the King of Beasts has a lot in common with Fluffy, the king of our hearts (or bane of existence, if you’re allergic to house cats).

For instance:

  • In both species, related females group together in a social unit. With Fluffy, it’s called a colony, not a pride.
  • Both lionesses and she-cats help out with birth and then share nursery duties when raising their cubs and kittens, respectively.
  • Lions and tomcats vocalize at the right frequency to be heard far away. However, size does matter: other lions will hear that roar 3-6 miles away, while a tomcat’s yowl is only audible to other domestic cats within about a quarter mile.

Of course, some very obvious differences become apparent just by looking at the two beautiful feline species.

Just what exactly is a lion?

Scientific name:

Panthera leo (Linnaeus 1788).

Lions have two recognized subspecies today. The one most of us know is the African lion (P. leo leo). There’s also the rare Asiatic lion (P. leo persica) in India:


This information is from the Cat Specialist Group website (see source list), except where noted. The range is quite broad because lions are much bigger than lionesses.

Lion cubs have spots that fade as they mature. Sometimes you can still see them in young adults. (Image: Kitty Terwolbeck, CC BY 2.0)

African lion:

  • Weight: 240 to 600 pounds.
  • Height at the shoulder: 3 to 4 feet (Sunquist and Sunquist)
  • Body length: 4-1/2 to 8 feet.
  • Tail length: 2 to a little over 3 feet.
  • Coat: Adults have solid-colored short fur, light tan to silvery gray, yellowish red, or dark brown. Cubs often have spots, and occasional faint belly markings show in some adult females. Underside is generally a paler version of the overall coat color. (Sunquist and Sunquist) Occasionally, a genetic mutation turns much of the fur white, but these “leucistic lions” aren’t albinos. Some of their fur and skin has pigment, and their eyes aren’t pink.
  • Litter size: 1-4 cubs.
  • Average life span: 12 to 16 years. (I think the Cat Specialist Group includes captive animals in these figures; in the wild, male lions probably don’t live so long.)

Asiatic lion:

  • Weight: 240 to 420 pounds.
  • Body length: 4-1/2 to 8 feet.
  • Tail length: 2 to a little over 3 feet.
  • Litter size: 1-4 cubs.
  • Average life span: 16-18 years.

Features unique to lions

  • Mane and tail tassel: Whether it’s yellow, brown, or reddish brown, the mane usually starts to grow as a young lion matures, at around age 3-1/2; then it darkens and thickens with age. (Sunquist and Sunquist) The Asiatic lion’s mane isn’t as impressive as its African counterpart, but in cooler climates this subspecies does grow a thick mane. (Loveridge et al., 2010b) The Asiatic lion has the longest tail tassel, though. (It also typically has a thick fold of belly skin, unlike African lions.)
  • The pride: Lions are the only cat that’s this social. It’s hard even to generalize about pride structure, since numbers and other details vary from place to place and even from pride to pride. Adult lionesses (all of them related) are the core members, averaging 4 or 5 per pride in India’s Gir National Park and up to 18 out on the Serengeti. (Sunquist and Sunquist) Lionesses typically are accompanied by either growing cubs or subadults who need to learn the fundamentals of hunting and pride living. Adult males come and go (2 to 6 per pride in Gir, on average, and 1 to 7 in Serengeti lions, per Sunquist and Sunquist), with an average tenure of 24 to 36 months (Cat Specialist Group), though some male coalitions can hold onto a pride for years.
  • That roar: This mighty sound may be unique in the group formerly known as “roaring cats”.

    According to Kitchener et al. (2010), sonograms show that only the lion has a completely structured call series. Leopards and jaguars just show a few parts of this pattern. Tigers do the main call and grunt, but they do not roar, and neither do snow leopards.

Where found in the wild

Tommyknocker via Wikimedia, public domain

Today, African lions live south of the Sahara in various habitats, mainly savanna lands that support numerous prey animals. They like open spaces as well as woodland that gives them enough shelter and cover for hunting.

However, these big cats are surprisingly flexible. Historic records show that P. leo was once widespread across all of Africa and much of Europe, the Middle East, and southwestern Asia.

It’s hard to estimate how many wild lions live in Africa now. There might be around 20,000 to 30,000, mostly in southern and eastern Africa, with more than half of them in conservation areas. (Cat Specialist Group; Macdonald et al., 2010a)

Asiatic lions used to roam all of southwestern Asia. At present, the 400 or so individuals in and around Gir Park, Gujarat State, India, make up the only known wild population. (Cat Specialist Group)

Closest cat-family relatives

Taxonomists interpret most molecular studies of the big cats as showing that lions are a little more closely related to jaguars and leopards than they are to tigers and snow leopards. (Christiansen; Kitchener et al., 2017)

Famous real-life lions

Human-lion connections are intense, whether we’re running for our lives, admiring this cat’s majestic appearance and roar, or reaching out to embrace them.

  • Man-eaters. Each year, someone falls prey to wild lions, particularly in Tanzania. There also have been a few infamous outbreaks in the past. Perhaps the most infamous man-eaters were the 19th-century Tsavo lions, although the early 20th-century attacks in Njombe had a reportedly higher body count.

Other lions are more popular, including:

  • The MGM lions: Yes, it’s plural. There’s only one lion shown roaring in the MGM logo at the start of a movie, but several cats have had the gig. We’re looking at Leo, who first appeared in the 1950s. He was preceded by George, Tanner, Coffee, Telly, and Slats (who originated the role a century ago).
  • Elsa: In the 1950s, Elsa and her sisters Big One and Lustica were just a few days old when game warden George Adamson was forced to shoot their mother, who charged him when he unwittingly got too close to the den. The Adamsons cared for the three cubs. Big One and Lustica were adopted by a Dutch zoo, but as documented in Born Free and its sequels, Elsa was trained to survive in the wild and then released.
  • Christian: You’ve probably seen videos like this one about the lion cub that was born in captivity, purchased by two young London men from Harrod’s, and eventually, with the help of George Adamson, successfully released back into the wild at Kenya’s Kora National Reserve.

    What you might not have realized is that this all happened in the early 1970s! Videos of the first reunion, in either 1971 or 1972, between Christian and the two men who raised him went viral in the early 2000s and left the impression that it had just happened. There was a second reunion shortly after the first one, and then Christian went back to the wild and, sadly, was never seen again.

  • Prosperity, official mascot of the US Senate: The white lions Prosperity, Sunshine, and Future were donated to the Cincinnati Zoo by Siegfried and Roy after the tragic 2003 mauling ended their Las Vegas act. (Wikipedia has a list of other well-known “ghosts.”)

    How lions live

    In the wild, lions sleep anywhere from 14 to 20 hours each day. (Image: TTphoto/Shutterstock)

    Lions are usually active right after sunset and before dawn, and perhaps also around midnight.

    Aaand that’s about it.

    Lions have been known to sleep 24 hours after a big meal. (Those in captivity sleep “only” 10 to 15 hours a day.)

    A lion will eat almost anything down to and including ostrich eggs. However, these stalk-and-ambush hunters generally go after medium to large hoofed plant-eaters, ranging from water buffalo to warthogs.

    We all assume that lions form prides so they can work together and catch more prey, but zoologists haven’t yet been able to unquestionably prove a connection between lion society and hunting.

    They’re still studying this today.

    It’s true that coordinated hunting might improve the pride’s chances for a meal.

    And, per Ewer (see source list at end of chapter), lionesses have been seen using a variety of hunting techniques:

    • Fanning out to flush prey out of cover
    • Circling around and chasing prey toward another lioness who’s waiting in ambush
    • Herding prey into a cul-de-sac (don’t laugh — several animals can do this)

    But that only gives lions about a 30% success rate, tops. (Sunquist and Sunquist)

    Perhaps, instead, grouping together helps lions defend their food. (Macdonald et al., 2010a)

    After all, lions operate out in the open, where scavenging is a big problem.

    Vultures can easily be chased away. A group of hyenas, though, may chase lionesses away from a carcass. That doesn’t work out so well for the hyenas, if the pride’s much larger lions are around. (Macdonald and otherset al., 2010a)

    There is an evolutionary down side to such group defense of a kill.

    A single carcass only goes so far, and competition for a feeding spot is intense. In large prides, youngsters often get pushed aside, even when Mom tries to make room for them.

    If that happens too often, the pride will have traded away their future for just one meal in the here and now.

    How lions reproduce

    Just for perspective, domestic cats can have 2 litters a year, with breeding seasons focused around October through January and from July to September.

    Lions will mate at any time of year, but once pregnant, a lioness doesn’t come into heat again until her cubs mature, about 24 months after birth.

    House cat pregnancies last 65 days; for lions, that’s more like 105 days.

    A newborn kitten only weighs around 3 ounces, and its eyes stay closed for up to 20 days.

    A newborn lion cub, of course, is heavier — about 2-1/2 to 3 pounds — and its eyes generally are open at birth, or soon afterwards.

    Domestic cats are usually weaned by 8 weeks and independent from Mom at around 6 months of age. This whole process takes about four times as long for lion cubs.

    During those 24 months of raising Junior, the lioness does not come into heat again, unless there’s a pride takeover.

    Subadult males disperse, that is, they leave their family group and make their own way in the world. Lions are almost unique in that their nomad males form coalitions.

    For a while, coalition members hone their hunting and other survival skills, but when they’re about 4 years old, they’ll start looking for a pride.

    This leads to some intense confrontations.

    Sometimes the resident male, who holds the pride, wins. Sometimes the newcomers take over, and when they do, they drive out all the subadult males and, sadly, kill all the cubs so that they can sire their own offspring.

    As a result of this brutal but efficient way to ensure the fittest lion passes along his genes, almost a third of all cubs on the Serengeti are killed before reaching maturity. (Macdonald et al., 2010a)

    Interactions with people

    We’ve already looked at some famous lions and their links to people. Check out Sunquist and Sunquist below for more fascinating historical details.

    Basically, as Loveridge et al. (2010a) note, there are two very different kinds of interaction between lions and people:

    1. Lions are cultural icons, as well as tourist attractions and conservation symbols.
    2. They prey on livestock and on us (particularly in Tanzania, where almost 600 people were killed and hundreds more injured between 1990 and 2004, the last dates I could find data on; from 1978 to 1991, Gir lions killed 28 and injured 165 people, mainly near the preserve rather than in it).

    We also overexploit lions, steal their prey for bushmeat, and break up their habitat.

    For most readers, this talk about predation and exploitation are intellectual problems, but for anyone living near a preserve — especially a subsistence farmer who really can’t afford to lose livestock and is afraid to let the children outdoors to play — these are crises.

    Many people, especially in India for cultural reasons, try to work with conservationists and other stakeholders, but it’s very difficult to get everyone on board. And this is vital — it only takes one aggrieved human with weapons and/or poison to wipe out an entire lion pride.


    • African lions: Vulnerable.
    • Asiatic lions: Endangered. (The good news is that this small population is stable.)

    Fossil relatives

    Although lions have the best fossil history of all the big cats, their evolution is still mostly a mystery.

    Biomolecular techniques date the origin of big cats to at least 10 million years ago, but the oldest widely accepted fossils are much younger.

    This doesn’t mean that molecular testing is incorrect. The problem is that not that many cat fossils of any kind have come down to us.

    For one thing, predators are few and far between, compared to prey. Reportedly it takes 100 zebras out on the Serengeti to support one lion (remember that 30% success rate).

    For another, the members of family Felidae often live in places that don’t preserve fossils well.

    According to one DNA-based estimate, it’s possible that three-quarters of all cats that have ever lived are missing from the fossil record! (Johnson et al.)

    Whenever there’s a gap between DNA studies and the fossil records, paleontologists doggedly head back out into the field in hopes of discovering something that will flesh out these “ghost lineages.”

    Lions are particularly challenging.

    Lion taxonomy has long been controversial. Some authorities place all fossil lions in the modern species, “P. leo,” while others recognize a number of extinct species, for example, “P. spelea,” the cave lion, and “P. atrox,” the North American lion.

    — Werdelin et al.

    “P. spelea,” as depicted by early humans on the walls of France’s Chauvet Cave. Note the lack of a mane: was this a group of lionesses or were cave lions mane-less? (Image source)

    We have eyewitness descriptions of P. spelea from around 30,000 years ago.

    Spelea may have sheltered in caves but it also prowled the mammoth steppe — an open ecosystem that was sort of like a savanna but with bears, mammoths, and other creatures you’re not ever going to see on the Serengeti.

    Cave lion fossils have been found from England to China.

    Isotopic analysis suggests that Spelea’s favorite food was reindeer/caribou, though it could only dominate the food web in areas where the climate was too cold for other big carnivores. (Bocherens)

    When reindeer and caribou headed into the Arctic as the last Ice age wound down, Spelea did not follow them. The last “cave lion” died some 11,000 years ago.

    “P. atrox” (right) and one of the neighborhood cats — Smilodon. (Image: Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Fossils of Atrox, the “American lion,” were first found in Natchez, Mississippi, in the late 1850s. This big cat had roamed all over North America during the late Pleistocene, roughly 50,000 years ago. And like Spelea, Atrox disappeared at the end of the last ice age.

    Some top paleontologists consider it a lion; others think Atrox was more closely related to the jaguar. (Christiansen)

    By this time, modern lions were present. How could they coexist with these relatives?

    Some researchers hypothesize that, in ice age times, Leo held sway in Africa and southwestern Eurasia, while Spelea ranged from Europe across northern Eurasia to Alaska (via the Bering Land Bridge). Atrox, in the meantime, was centered in southern North America.

    Whatever their evolutionary history, modern lions were the only ones left standing after the Ice Age, and while their range has shrunk, they are still holding on today.

    Asiatic lion numbers in India, while low, have doubled over the last 10 years.

    In Africa, conservationists, governments, and local people are committed to finding ways to protect lions and the human beings who must live alongside them.

    It’s a terrible, yet beautiful challenge.

    There’s hope for the future. But only time can tell what’s in store next for all stakeholders in this difficult work.

    Edited October 24, 2019

    Featured image: Derek Keats, CC BY 2.0


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