This beloved wild cat needs no introduction.
However, it might surprise you to hear that, under the skin, the King and Queen of Beasts are really just scaled-up house cats! (Turner and Antón).
And when it comes to behavior, lions have a lot in common with Fluffy, the king of our hearts.
- In both species, related females group together in a social unit. With Fluffy, that’s called a colony (with a few males that live on the periphery); in lions, it’s a pride (males are much more dominant here).
- 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: that lion’s roar carries up to six miles, while a tomcat’s yowl is only audible for about a quarter mile.
Of course, there are major differences, too, and not just those that show up on general inspection.
This brings us to the basic question: House cats we know, but what exactly is a lion?
Lions have two recognized subspecies.
- The one most of us know, the African lion (P. leo leo).
- But India has a lion, too — the rare Asiatic or Gir lion (P. leo persica).
These subspecies are much alike. Asiatic lions are smaller than their African counterparts, and males often have a skin flap on their bellies, as well as sparser manes.
This information is from the Cat Specialist Group website (see source list), except where noted. There is quite a number spread in each category because lions are much bigger than lionesses.
- Adult 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. The cat’s underside is generally a paler version of the overall coat color. We’ll look at the mane a little later in this chapter. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
Sometimes, particularly in southern Africa, a genetic mutation produces lions with a white or blonde coat. These aren’t albinos — they just never developed the usual dark pigments that combine with lighter ones to make the typical lion fur colors. (Cincinnati Zoo)
- Litter size: 1 to 4 cubs.
- Average life span: 12 to 16 years. (I think the Cat Specialist Group includes captive animals in these figures; life in the wild is hard enough to shorten a lion’s life expectancy.)
- 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 to 4 cubs.
- Average life span: 16 to 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)
Asiatic lions have the longest tail tassel, though. (They also typically have a thick fold of belly skin, unlike African lions.) This tuft of hair first appears when a lion or lioness is about 5-1/2 months old. Sometimes it covers a bony knob that protrudes slightly from the end of the tail. It looks to us as though lions use their highly visible tail tassel for communication and/or identification, but since we don’t know Leo’s point of view, there will always remain some uncertainty about why lions have this unique feature.
- The pride: Lions are the only cat that’s this social. The number of members and other details vary quite a lot from place to place and even from pride to pride. In every group, related adult lionesses form the core. There may be, on average, 4 or 5 lionesses per pride in India’s Gir National Park and up to 18 out on the Serengeti. (Sunquist and Sunquist) Accompanying lionesses are either growing cubs or subadults. Adult males come and go (on average, there are 2 to 6 males per pride in Gir and 1 to 7 in Serengeti prides, per Sunquist and Sunquist); the “king” reigns for some 24 to 36 months before usurpers come along (Cat Specialist Group), though some male coalitions can hold onto a pride for a long time.
This might be an Asiatic lion, given the furry flap on its abdomen.
Yes, some other big cats also make the hills and forests ring, but according to Kitchener et al. (2010), sonograms show that only lions do a completely structured call series. Leopards and jaguars show a few pieces of the pattern. Tigers just have the main call and grunt.
Where found in the wild
Historically, lions were once widespread across all of Africa and much of Europe, the Middle East, and southern Asia.
P. leo leo, the African lion, is found in various habitats south of the Sahara, mainly savanna lands that support numerous prey animals and provide just enough open woodlands for lions to shelter in and use as cover.
Experts aren’t sure how many wild lions live here now. There might be around 20,000 to 30,000, mostly in southern and eastern Africa, with more than half of these in conservation areas. (Cat Specialist Group; Macdonald et al., 2010a)
P. leo persica used to roam all of southwestern Asia. Now, the only wild Asiatic lions live in and around Gir Park in Gujarat State, India. (Cat Specialist Group)
Closest cat family relatives
Most molecular studies of big cat DNA reportedly show 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)
Some experts link leopards and lions together, while others argue that jaguars are the lion’s “sister.”
That latter claim might sound far-fetched, since jaguars and lions now live on completely different continents.
However, the fossil record shows that lions did reach the New World, perhaps getting down as far as northern South America before they eventually went extinct in this part of the world.
They probably arrived during the ice ages, when a huge drop in global sea level turned what’s now the Bering Strait into dry land.
We have used the lion image in many different cultural ways.
In real life, human-lion connections also 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 mass 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.
- More likeable lions include 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. Nowadays 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 Adamson’s 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. But long before that, Christian had returned to the wild and was never seen again.
- Prosperity, official mascot of the US Senate: In 1998, Siegfried & Roy donated a group of white lions to the Cincinnati Zoo, including Prosperity, Sunshine and Future. Wikipedia has more information on white lions. These pretty cats aren’t albinos — they just lack dark pigmentation.
How lions live in the wild
Lions are usually active right after sunset and before dawn, and perhaps also around midnight.
Aaaaand, that’s about it. These dozy cats have been known to sleep for 24 hours after a heavy meal!
In the wild, they nap 14 to 20 hours or more each day. For captive lions, that’s “only” 10 to 15 hours.
When it’s time to eat, a lion will chow down on almost anything up to and including ostrich eggs. However, these hypercarnivores generally go after medium to large hoofed plant-eaters, ranging from water buffalo to warthogs.
Why do lions form prides?
We all assume that it’s so they can catch more prey by working together.
After all, per Ewer (see reference list at the end of this book), lionesses have been observed:
- 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 do this)
But even these clever cats only have about a 30% success rate, tops. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
Zoologists have yet to unquestionably prove a connection between lion society and hunting.
Perhaps living together helps lions defend their food. (Macdonald and et al., 2010a) After all, they operate out in the open, where scavenging is a big problem.
Enough hyenas, for example, may gather to drive lionesses away from a carcass. But if the pride’s much larger lions are around, those scavengers are out of luck. (Macdonald and et al., 2010a)
There is an evolutionary down side to such group defense, though.
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
Lions mate at any time of year. Once pregnant, a lioness doesn’t come into heat again until her cubs mature, about 24 months after birth, or are killed during a pride takeover (a brutal fact of life in lion country).
Newborns weigh 2 to 3 pounds. Their eyes generally are open at birth, or soon afterwards.
A housecat’s kittens are usually weaned by eight weeks and are independent from Mom at around six months of age. This whole process takes about four times as long for lion cubs.
That’s not surprising, given their larger size and the whole “apex predator” thing. It takes a while for juveniles to learn how to survive on their own and, in males, for the full mane to grow in.
Finally, its time to leave home.
As with other feline moms, the prides lionesses may allow females to settle in, but subadult males must make their own way in the world.
Wandering young lions often form coalitions.
For a while, they’ll hone their hunting and other survival skills, but at around age four years, they start looking for a pride of their own.
This leads to some intense confrontations. Sometimes the resident male of the pride wins. Sometimes he does not.
When they take over, the new lions will drive out all the subadult males and, sadly, kill all the cubs so that they can sire their own offspring.
Almost a third of all lion cubs on the Serengeti die this way before reaching maturity. It’s a horribly efficient way to ensure that only the fittest lions pass along their genes. (Macdonald et al., 2010a)
Interactions with people
We’ve already looked at this a little bit (the chapter on lions in Sunquist and Sunquist has even more fascinating historical details).
Basically, as Loveridge et al. (2010a) note, there are two very different kinds of interaction between lions and people:
- Lions may be cultural icons, as well as tourist attractions and conservation symbols.
- They are also a threat, preying on livestock and on us. In Tanzania, for example, almost 600 people were killed, and hundreds more injured, between 1990 and 2004; and from 1978 to 1991, Gir lions killed 28 and injured 165 people, mainly near the preserve rather than in it.
People 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 — it’s a very serious concern.
Surprisingly, many locals — especially in India, for cultural reasons — try to work with conservationists and other stakeholders.
Cost-effective measures like guards or simply putting livestock inside a building overnight do work. But it’s very difficult to get everyone on board with lion conservation, especially if they have suffered losses or personal harm.
Yet local support is vital — it only takes one aggrieved person, using weapons and/or poison, to wipe out an entire lion pride.
- African lions: Vulnerable. More information.
- Asiatic lions: Endangered. More information. (The good news is that conservationists believe this population, though tiny, is stable.)
While lions have a good fossil history, compared to some other pantherines, their evolution is still mostly a mystery.
For example, researchers have found four-million-year-old fossils from a large lion-like cat in Tanzania, but no one yet knows if it is the world’s oldest lion.
There simply isn’t enough evidence yet to clearly indicate how that ancient predator was connected to today’s big cats. (Werdelin and Dehghani)
Confirmed lion fossils are all less than two million years old, although molecular markers indicate that lions and other big cats go back at least ten million years. (Werdelin et al.)
Herding fossil lions is not easy.
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.
Pleistocene humans did make cave paintings of P. spelea around 30,000 years ago.
Spelea’s fossils have been found from England to China.
It 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 that you’re not ever going to see on the Serengeti.
Isotopic analysis suggests that the cave lion’s favorite food was reindeer/caribou, although 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. Instead, it went extinct some 11,000 years ago.
Fossils of P. atrox, the North American lion (though some experts, like Christiansen, disagree with that classification), were first found in Natchez, Mississippi, in the late 1850s.
This big cat roamed North America during the late Pleistocene, roughly 50,000 years ago. There were other large cats around then, including sabertooths, but little is known about their ecology.
One possibility is that Atrox prowled pine parklands in northern parts of the continent, leaving warmer areas, like what are now Florida and Texas, to prehistoric jaguars. (Martin and Neuner)
By this time, modern lions were present. How could they coexist with these impressive relatives?
They certainly weren't LION when they said these big cats enjoy the #snow!
— WeatherNation (@WeatherNation) March 16, 2021
The cold weather certainly wouldn’t have bothered them, this March 2021 video suggests!
Some researchers hypothesize that, in ice age times:
- Leo (the modern lion) held sway in Africa and southwestern Eurasia
- Spelea (the cave lion) ranged from Europe across northern Eurasia to Alaska (via the Bering Land Bridge).
- Atrox (the North American lion) was centered in what’s now the southern United States.
However these ancient lion species may have shared the land, Leo was the only lion left standing after the Ice Age. And modern lions are hanging in there still 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.
There’s hope for the future. But only time can tell what’s in store next for all stakeholders in this difficult work.
This is a slightly edited chapter from my book on the big cats, which is on sale at Google Play with the single-use code C818S5F9UJ0FT through April 5th (you have to log in to Google first).
Blog regulars might be saying, “What? This isn’t Friday!”
I know. Another iconic predator is coming in for Feline Friday this week…
Featured image: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0
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