LION : A majestic cat

African lions (Panthera leo), evolved between one million and 800,000 years ago in the African continent. From here they started spreading northwards and emerged as sub/species Panthera leo fossils in Europe, Italy, for the first time about 700,000 years ago.This species gave rise to the Cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea), which become visible about 300,000 years ago. It was during the Upper Pleistocene period (126,000 to 10,000 years ago) these animals started spreading towards North and South America and evolved into the American lion. Nobody knows what happened, but the lions died out in America and northern Eurasia around 300,000 years ago. This could have been secondary to the extinction of Pleisocene megafauna (it refers to the set of species of large animals, such as mammals, birds and reptiles, that lived on Earth during the Pleisocene epoch and disappeared in an Quaternary extinction event. Reason for the extinction seems to be human expansion out of Africa and southern Asia).

The modern lion (Panthera leo) is one of the four big cats alive today and is the second largest existing cat after tiger. Member of the Felidae family they are classified under genus Panthera. Lions basically are the animals of savanna and grasslands, although they may also take to bush and forest. Males, which can weigh between 150-250 kg (330-500 lb) can be easily distinguished by their manes. While females that do not have manes range 120-150 kg (260-330 lb). Wild lions at present exist in Sub-Saharan Africa and in the jungles of Asia. Asiatic lions, which have been placed under the ‘critically endangered’ category due to their small population are now restricted only to Gir Forest National Park (Gujrat) in India. They had vanished from Southwest Asia and North Africa in historic times. Until late Pleistocene period (about 10,000 years ago) these cats were among the most prevalent large land mammals after the humans. They had their presence in most of Africa, in the Americas from the Yukon to Peru and across Eurasia from Western Europe to India.

Physical Characteristics

All lions look more or less same, but there is one way experts identify individual animals is by recording spots on their muzzles. Like all cats lions are also meat eaters and hunters. For catching and overpowering their prey they use their powerful forelegs to catch hold of or strike down large prey that are able to outrun these huge cats. Jaws of lions are short but well-built and strong with 8 cm (3.1 in) long canines that can quickly kill the prey, either by piercing the neck and strangling or by biting the nose and suffocating. The tongue’s upper surface has small bumps on it that facilitate the animal to hold on to meat while eating. This also serves to remove parasites while grooming.

Lion’s legs are short, but the muscles therein are very powerful allowing the animal to sprint and bring down even the large preys. Retractable claws are also quite big and help in catching hold of the prey. Retractability helps in protecting the claws so that their sharpness can be maintained.

Among the lions males are 25 to 35 per cent larger and 50 per cent heavier than the females. Adult males range between 150–250 kg (330–550 lb) in weight. Their main role is to protect the pride’s territory and females from other males. In such situations size is a major advantage though it increases the male’s need for food also.

Manes are found only on males, which make them look bigger without increasing the weight or need for food. Females which are smaller in size weigh between 120–182 kg (264–400 lb). According to Nowell and Jackson report average weight for males and females is 181 kg and 126 kg. A male killed near Mount Kenya was of 272 kg (600 lb). These cats are likely to vary in sizes depending on the environment and area they live in. For example, those in southern Africa tend to be about five per cent heavier than those in East Africa, in general.

On an average male’s head and body length varies between 5.7 ft – 8.2 ft (170–250 cm), while females measure from 4.7 ft to 5.9 ft (140–175 cm); tail length varies from 2.11ft to 3.5ft (90–105 cm) in males and 2.4ft to 3.3ft in females (70–100 cm); height on shoulders is about 4ft. (123 cm) in males and 3.6ft. (107 cm) in females. The longest known lion was a black-maned male, which was shot near Mucsso (southern Angola) in October 1973; the heaviest lion known in the wild was a man-eater shot in 1936 just outside Hectorspruit in eastern Transvaal in South Africa. It weighed 313 kg (690 lb). Due to good food and better medical facilities wild cats in captivity tend to be larger than those in the wild. The heaviest lion on record was a male at Colchester Zoo in England named Simba in 1970. He weighed 375 kg (826 lb).

All lions have spots on their muzzles, which are known as “whisker spots”. The pattern created by the top row of whiskers vary in each lion and remains the same all through the lifetime. Field researchers frequently use this distinctive pattern to identify particular animals. In addition to this these animals are unusual in the sense that their males are the only member in the cat family to have not only the manes, but also the tufts of hairs at the end of their tails. 

Male lion’s real growth starts when they are 3 to 3.5 years old and by 4 they reach almost their adult size and weight. On the other hand lionesses attain two thirds of their adult size by the time they are two years old. Both sexes continue to grow till they are 6 years old.

In the family of cats lion is the only member that displays clear sexual dimorphism — both sexes look distinctly different. Both play specialized roles in the pride. For instance, females, which are hunters, lack the male’s thick and cumbersome mane. Manes seem to impede the male’s ability to be camouflaged while stalking the prey and create overheating in chases. The color of mane varies from black to blond, usually turning darker as the lion grows older.

The most unique characteristic shared by both male and females is that their tails end in a hairy tuft. In some individuals, the tuft conceals a hard “spine” or “spur”, roughly 5 mm long, formed of the final sections of tail bone fused together. Lion is the only member of the cat family to have a tufted tail—the function of the tuft and spine is unknown. Absent at birth, tufts start developing when the cubs are around 5½ months old and become readily identifiable at 7 months.

Comparison with other felines

At shoulder lions are the tallest of the felines, and are also the second-heaviest after tigers, the striped cat. Lion skulls are quite  similar to those of tigers, although the frontal region is generally more depressed and flattened, with a somewhat shorter postorbital region. Lion’s skull has broader nasal openings as compared to tigers. Since there are very few differences in the skulls of two animals, experts use only the structure of lower jaw as a reliable indicator of species.

Coloration of lion varies from light buff to yellowish, reddish, or dark ochraceous brown. Its underparts are usually lighter and the tail tuft is black. Cubs born to lions have brown spots or rosettes on their body, somewhat like those of a leopard, though they fade away as the cubs reach adulthood. Faint spots can often be seen on the underparts and legs, especially on adult lionesses.

The average life-span of lions in the wild is between ten to fourteen years. In the wild, males rarely live beyond ten years, as injuries sustained from continual fighting with rival males greatly reduce their longevity. While in captivity, with good care, maintenance and health services this period can stretch up to twenty years.


Unique to adult male lions, manes are one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the species. It makes the animal look bigger and also provides an excellent intimidation display; absence or presence of color, and the size of mane is linked to genetic precondition, climate, sexual maturity, and the production of testosterone; the thumb rule is the darker and fuller the mane, the healthier the lion. Sexual selection of mates by the females favors those males that have the darkest and the densest manes. (Please also see — “Why do Lions have manes”)

Habitat and Distribution

In Africa, second largest and also the second most populous continent after Asia, lions can be found in East Africa to sands of Kalahari Desert, South Sahara to South Africa, barring the Congo rainforests. According to an article in New York Times by Stephanie M. Dloniak, a biologist and science writer based in Kenya, only 20,000 to 40,000 wild African lions (listed as a threatened species by International Union for the Conservation of Nature IUCN) remain, in just 20 per cent of the historical range of the species.

These cats have preference for savanna grasslands dotted with Acacia trees which serve as shade. Lions avoid thick forests because the prey is limited and the trees hinder the clear visibility. Lions’ grassland habitat is already being drastically reduced due to the competition by humans.

In India lion habitat is a mix of very dry deciduous scrub and dry savanna forest. In relatively recent times their habitat extends over the southern parts of Eurasia, ranging from Greece to India, and most of Africa except the central rainforest-zone and the Sahara desert.

Herodotus reported that these cats had been widespread in Greece around 480 BC; they attacked the baggage camels of the Persian king Xerxes while he was passing through the country. Aristotle described them rare by 300 BC. By 100 AD they were locally extinct. A population of Asiatic Lions survived until the 10th century in the Caucasus, their last European outpost.

The species was exterminated in Palestine by the middle Ages and from most of the rest of Asia after the coming of firearms in the 18th century. Between the late 19th and early 20th century they vanished from North Africa and Southwest Asia. By late nineteenth century lions disappeared from Turkey and most of northern India. The last sighting of a live Asiatic lion in Iran was in 1941 (between Shiraz and Jahrom, Fars Province), though the carcass of a lioness was found in 1944 on the banks of Karun river in Kh?zest?n Province. There are no subsequent reliable reports of sighting from Iran. The subspecies now survives only in and around the Gir Forest of northwestern India where 411 lions (as per Asiatic Lion census-2010) live in a 1,412 km² (558 square miles) sanctuary in the state of Gujarat, which covers most of the forest. Their numbers are slowly increasing.

They were found in most of Africa, much of Eurasia from Western Europe to India and the Bering land bridge, and in the Americas from Yukon to Peru. Parts of this range were occupied by subspecies that are extinct today.

Taxonomy and evolution

Lions belong to the genus Panthera and their closest relatives are the other members of this genus i.e jaguars, tigers and leopards. (Panthera leo) or African Lion evolved, as the name itself suggests, in Africa between 1 million and 800,000 years ago and later spread throughout the Holarctic region (habitats found throughout the northern continents of the world as a whole). These cats appeared in Europe for the first time around 700,000 years ago with the subspecies (Panthera leo fossilis) at Isernia in Italy. From this lion evolved the later Cave Lions (Panthera leo spelaea) about 300,000 years ago. The upper Pleistocene epoch seen the spread of lions to North and South America, and their development into (Panthera leo atrox), the American Lion. These cats died out in northern Eurasia and America at the end of the last glaciation, about 10,000 years ago; this may have been secondary to the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna.

  • European cave lion or Eurasian cave lion or Upper Pleistocene European cave lion (P. l. spelaea) occurred in Eurasia about 300,000 to 10,000 years ago. This species is identified from Paleolithic cave paintings, clay busts and ivory carvings showing tufted tails, protruding ears, faint tiger-like stripes and at least some males with a ruff or primitive mane around their necks.
  • East Siberian or Beringian cave lion (P. l. vereshchagini) was found in Yakutia (Russia), Alaska (USA), and the Yukon Territory (Canada). Analysis of skulls and mandibles of this cat shows that it is clearly larger than the European cave lion and smaller than the American cave lion with differing skull proportions.
  • East African or Tsavo lion (P. l. nubica) is found in east Africa, from Kenya and Tsavo National Park.


  • Sri Lanka Lion or Ceylon Lion (P. l. sinhaleyus) seems to have become extinct about 39,000 years ago. This animal is known only from two teeth found in deposits at Kuruwita. Relying on these teeth, Dr. Paules Edward Pieris Deraniyagala (1900 – 1976) erected this subspecies in 1939. Dr. Deraniyagala was a paleontologist, zoologist, and also an artist from Sri Lanka. He specialised in fauna and human fossils of the Indian subcontinent.
  • European Lion (P. l. europaea) was perhaps identical to (Panthera leo persica) or (Panthera leo spelea); its status as a subspecies is unsubstantiated. It became extinct around 100 AD due to persecution and over-exploitation. It was found in the Iberian Peninsula, the Balkans, Italian Peninsula and the southern France. This animal was a very popular object of hunting among Romans and Greeks.
  • (Panthera youngi) or (P. l. youngi) is known from Choukoutien in northeastern China and lived about 350,000 years ago in the Pleistocene epoch. Its connection to the existing lion subspecies is unclear, and it probably represents a distinct species. Data examination in 1969 suggested that the Eurasian cave lion, American lion and the large Chinese (Panthera youngi) are conspecific. However, there are some scientists who are not so sure about (P. youngi) being a lion, and identify it as a primitive tiger or even a leopard.
  • Marozi or Spotted lion (P. l. maculatus) is sometimes believed to be a distinct subspecies, but may be an adult lion that has retained its juvenile spotted pattern. If it was a subspecies in its own right, rather than a small number of unusually colored individuals, it has been extinct since 1931. A less likely identity is a natural leopard-lion hybrid commonly known as a leopon.


There are cases where lions have been known to breed with the striped cats, the tigers (usuallly Siberian and Bengal subspecies also known as Royal Bengal tiger) to create hybrids called ‘ligers’ and ‘tiglons’. They also have been crossed with the spotted cats, the leopards to produce ‘leopons’, and ‘jaguars’ to produce ‘jaglions’. The marozi is supposedly a spotted lion or a natural ‘leopon’, while the Congolese Spotted Lion is a complex lion-jaguar-leopard hybrid called a ‘lijagulep’. Such hybrids were once commonly bred in zoos, but the practice is now strictly discouraged and the emphasis is on conserving species and subspecies. Hybrids are still being bred in private menageries and zoos in China.

If we go by the definition, ‘liger’ is a cross between a male lion and a tigress. Since the growth-inhibiting gene from the female tiger is absent, a growth-promoting gene is passed on by the male lion; the resulting offspring or ‘ligers’ grow far larger than either of the parents. They share behavioral and physical qualities of both the parent species (stripes and spots on a sandy background). Male ligers are sterile, but females are usually fertile. Males have 50-50 chance of having manes. If they grow one, their manes will be modest: around 50% of a pure lion mane. Lengthwise ligers are between 3.0 and 3.7 m (10 to 12 feet), and can weigh 360 to 450 kg (800 to 1,000 pounds) or more. The less common ‘tigon’ is a cross between the lioness and the male tiger. Lucknow zoo in Utter Pradesh (India) once produced a ‘tigon’ cub. Since it was discouraged the project was not taken forward.

Biology and behavior

These cats spend much of their time resting and are inactive for about 20 hours a day. Although they can be active at any time of the day, but their activity usually peaks after dusk with a period of defecating, socializing and grooming. Periodic bursts of activity follows throughout the night until dawn, when hunting most often takes place. On an average lions spend 50 minutes on eating and two hours a day walking.

They are capable of running at a top speed of 50 mph (81 kmph). Usually people think only females do the hunting, which is not correct. Since males spend much of their lives in search of a pride, during this period they have to fend for themselves.


Since lions are ambush predators, they don’t hunt down a prey like cheetahs but wait for it to come into their territory, they spend a lot of time in waiting. That way they are more patient than other species. They are also known for sleeping more than any other animal in entire Africa. Another reason for this lethargy is the lion’s body mass. Lions are heavier built than other carnivores and it’s important for them to stay cool so laying around is essential for them to keep their body cool. In addition to this they need to make the most of every meal by resting since it can take two to three days before they get their next meal. Lions have a distensible tummy which holds a lot of food and by laying down they can make the most out of every meal. The laziness is thereby a part of their behavioral profile.

Tree Climbing

African lions climb trees for various reasons. Usually the females climb up a tree to get a break from nursing the cubs. Others climb in order to get a better view of the surrounding or to get away from flies, wet weather, angry herds of Cape buffaloes or to get a cool breeze.

Thermoregulation or Keeping Cool

Since lions are heavy-bodied animals and live in warmer climate, it is necessary for them to keep their bodies cool. For this they thermoregulate through their skin. They rest during the day usually under a tree or in the shadow of bushes laying on their backs to expose their thin-skinned stomachs. Panting is another method of keeping cool which they do after eating a large meal or when exposed to direct sunlight. Hunting by night, when the temperature is considerably low, is also a part of the strategy to avoid daytime heat. Licking of forelimbs is also a method to thermo regulate as they are highly vascular and cool the blood. As mentioned earlier they also climb up trees to bring down their body temperature with the help of cool breeze.


Scent is used to mark territory. Males spray liquid, which in fact is a combination of urine and scent from glands situated at the base of the tale. Animals mark bushes and trees and scrape the ground with their hind feet after urinating. Lions, like other mammals, have a special organ called “vomeronasal” for detecting scent. When investigating a scent a certain facial expression is seen, called “flehmen”, characterized by an open mouth, a wrinkled nose and an uplift chin. This feature can also be seen while a male investigates a lioness’s reproductive state.

Lifespan and Health

Adult lions have no natural predators. They die either at the hands of humans or killed by other lions. As the protector of the pride they are bound to come into aggressive contact with the rival males, which often end up in the death or serious injuries to either of the males. Truth is that the males can reach the age of 15 or 16 provided they manage to avoid being ousted by other males. But usually it happens that the most of them do not live more than 10 years as they often die due to fights. This is the reason that average lifespan of a male tends to be significantly less than that of lionesses in the wild. However, members of both the sexes can be injured or even killed by other lions when two prides with overlapping territories come into conflict.

Lions are commonly attacked by ticks of various species. These insects attack usually the ears, neck and groin regions. Several species of tapeworms have been isolated from the intestines of the lions who have ingested larval forms from antelope meat. Lions inhibiting Ngorongoro Crater were ones afflicted by an outbreak of stable fly (Stomoxys calcitrans) in 1962, which resulted in the cats becoming covered in bloody bare patches and emaciated. Lions sought unsuccessfully to evade the biting flies by climbing trees or crawling into hyena burrows. The problem was so grave that many animals perished or emigrated as the population dropped from 70 to 15 individuals. A more recent outbreak in 2001 killed six lions. Captivity lions are especially vulnerable to the Canine distemper virus (CDV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). CDV spreads through domestic dogs and other flesh eaters. An outbreak in 1994 in Serengeti National Park resulted in many lions developing neurological symptoms such as seizures. Several lions died from pneumonia and encephalitis. FIV, which is similar to HIV while not known to adversely affect lions, is worrisome enough in its effect in domestic cats that the Species Survival Plan recommends systematic testing in captive lions. It occurs with high to endemic frequency in several wild lions, but is generally absent from the Asiatic and Namibian lions.

 Between 1993 to 1997, more than 1,000 lions (one-third of the total population of the Serengeti Parks) died due to canine distemper, which spread from Masai dogs to hyenas, which acted as primary carriers. Hyenas are long-distance travelers and mix up with other carnivores at kills. To stop the disease at its source a massive vaccination program was launched for 10,000 dogs in villages surrounding the parks. There is an ongoing program for vaccinating the dogs against parvo virus, rabies and canine distemper which can all be passed on to other wild animals.

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