Scientific Name: Panthera leo
The lion is one of the four big cats in the genus Panthera and a member of the family Felidae. The cat’s closest relatives are the other species of the genus Panthera: the tiger, the jaguar, and the leopard. Panthera leo appears to have evolved in Africa between 1 million and 800,000 years ago, before spreading throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It is the second-largest wild cat after the tiger.
About the Lion
Today, most of the world’s lion population lives in Africa, but 50,000 years ago they were prevalent in the Middle East, Southern and Central Europe and India not to mention north and east through Asia as far away as Siberia. Most likely the cats went north out of Africa into Europe and Asia eventually crossing the Bering land bridge into Alaska and down through North America to Mexico. They were an integral part of the planet’s ecosystems occupying more territory than any other mammal in history, second only to that of Man, himself, whose subsequent flourishing contributed to the loss of habitat and diminished range of the lion, right on up to the present day.
The Cave Lion
A molecular study of ancient fossils suggests the Panthera species could have begun as long ago as 2 to 3 million years but the clearest and most abundant fossilized evidence dates from Europe, Siberia and Alaska about 500,000 years ago where the enormous Cave Lion (Panthera leo fossilis), a quarter larger than today’s lions, held a range of territory of immense proportions. Since then it evolved into what is known as the true Cave Lion (Panthera leo spelaea) which, during the last 60,000 years, became extinct, probably due to a combination of climate change and over-hunting by humans.
The American Lion
The American Lion (Panthera leo atrox) is also a descendant of P leo fossilis and continued the territorial expansion further south through Central America and as far as Peru, half way down the South American continent. The American Lion is thought to be the largest lion to have ever lived, standing five feet tall and measuring 11½ feet from nose to tail. It weighed in at about 700 to 800 pounds. About 13,000 years ago, however, it went extinct, most likely following the extinction of its large animal prey. Panthera leo atrox had no recognized predator; its brain to body size was larger than any known modern cats. It was stronger and probably faster than any other cat and in its time was a competing predator with sabor-tooth cats. It had a bite-force (1800 lbs. psi) twice as strong as today’s lion. More than 100 American Lions have been found at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, CA.
Lions in the World Today
Contemporary lions live in the wild to about 12 years of age, although lions in captivity live almost twice that long. In the wild, rivalries amongst males are so frequent that the constant fighting lowers their lifespan by nearly fifty per cent.
Lions typically inhabit savanna and grassland, but can also live in bush and forest. There were 100,000 lions living in the wild 25 years ago but human encroachment and conflict have since reduced that number to about 25,000. The lion population in West Africa is currently less than 400 and it is believed the cat will soon become extinct in that region.
Most big cats live solitary lives but not so the lion. In fact, they are unusually social and live in groups called “prides.” A pride consists of related females and offspring and a small number of adult males.
Hunting & Prey
Groups of female lions typically hunt together, preying mostly on hoofed animals, such as buffalo, zebras, gazelle, impala, different types of deer and warthogs. They will also attack domestic livestock. These large cats are normally without predators and so at the top of the food chain but also are opportunistic food seekers. They tend to sleep in the daytime and hunt at night.
The female lion gestation period (pregnancy) is a little over 100 days. Lionesses will usually have one to 4 cubs, which she keeps in a den (a secluded area). Cubs are born blind and weight between 2 and 5 lbs at birth. Their eyes will open about a week after birth. The lioness will keep moving the location of her den to prevent her cubs from being attacked by other predators. After several weeks, both the lioness and her cubs will rejoin the pride.
Lion sounds include roaring, snarling, hissing, coughing, woofing and miaowling. They also head rub and lick members of their pride.
Lions in Culture
Often known as the King of Beasts, the male lion’s face has become one of the most widely recognized animal symbols in human culture. However its mane is a relatively recent development in the species’ evolution.
Lion depictions have been found dating back as far as 32,000 years through carvings and paintings from more than a dozen caves in England and Europe including the Lascaux and Chauvet Caves in France (Lascaux dates from 17,500 years ago, Chauvet from 30-32,000 years ago). The cat’s image appears widely on religious artifacts, national flags, in paintings and literature throughout the ages and in contemporary films and art.
Current research generally recognizes eight lion subspecies as follows:
- Panthera leo persica, or Asiatic lion; the main population remaining is located at the preserve allotted to about 400 Asiatic lions in the Gir Forest in northwest India.
- Panthera leo leo, or Barbary lion; now extinct in the wild (the last Barbary lion was killed in Morocco in 1922); many of today’s zoo lions are likely Barbary lions descended from the Moroccan Royal collection at Rabat Zoo.
- Panthera leo senegalensis, or West African lion.
- Panthera leo azandica, or northeast Congo lion.
- Panthera leo nubica, or East Africa or Masai lion aka Tsavo lion, which in the male lion, has no mane.
“While a big mane impresses everybody, even a small mane can be imposing in hot dry climates, where the costs of overheating are great and most male lions have little or no mane. This is the case in Tsavo, Kenya, where most lions are maneless.”
– Bruce D. Patterson, PhD, curator of mammals at The Field Museum, researcher in Tsavo National Parks, Kenya.
- Panthera leo bleyenberghi, or Katanga lion.
- Panthera leo krugeri, or Transvaal lion.
- Panthera leo melanochaita, or Cape lion, which became extinct in the wild around 1860.