Lion
Male
Female (Lioness)
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Panthera
Binomial name
Panthera leo
(Linnaeus, 1758)
Distribution of lions in Africa
Synonyms
Felis leo
Linnaeus, 1758

The lion (Panthera leo) is a large mammal of the Felidae (cat) family. Some large males weigh over 250 kg (550 lb). Today, wild lions live in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia. Lions are adapted for life in grasslands and mixed areas with trees and grass. The relatively small females are fast runners over short distances, and coordinate their hunting of herd animals.

Lions have disappeared from North Africa and southwest Asia in historic times. Until the late Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago, the lion was the most widespread large land mammal after humans. They were found in most of Africa, across Eurasia from western Europe to India, and in the Americas from the Yukon to Peru. The lion is now a vulnerable species. There was a decline in its African range of 30–50% over two decades in the second half of the 20th century. Habitat loss and conflicts with humans are the greatest causes of concern.

Lions are often called the "king of the beasts". They are used as symbols representing courage. They appear in heraldry more often than any other animal. They are an icon of courage and royalty.

Lions live for 10 to 14 years when they are in the wild. When they are captured, they can live longer than 20 years. In the wild, males do not usually live longer than 10 years. This is because wounds from fighting with other males make their lives shorter. They usually live in savanna and grassland. These areas do have bushes and trees, but lions are mainly adapted to catch prey on grasslands. Compared to other cats, lions are social. A group of lions is called a pride. In a pride of lions, there are related females, their young, and one or two adult males. Groups of female lions often hunt together.

Lions are carnivores and scavengers. Carrion makes up more than 50% of their diet. Lions scavenge animals either dead from natural causes (disease) or killed by other predators. They keep a constant lookout for circling vultures, because this means there is a dead or injured animal close by.

Description

Male Southern African lion in the area of Okonjima, Namibia
Female lion in Okonjima

The lion is a muscular, deep-chested cat with a short, rounded head, a reduced neck and round ears. Its fur varies from light buff to silvery grey, to yellowish red and dark brown. The underparts are generally lighter, and cubs are born with dark spots on their bodies. The spots fade as lions reach adulthood, although faint spots often may still be seen on the legs and underparts. The lion is the only member of the cat family that displays obvious sexual dimorphism. Males are more robust than females, have broader heads and a prominent mane, which grows downward and backward and covers most of the head, neck, shoulders, and chest. The mane is typically brownish and tinged with yellow, rust, and black hairs. The tail ends in a dark, hairy tuft. In some lions, the tuft conceals a hard "spine" or "spur", approximately 5 mm (0.20 in) long, formed of the final sections of tail bone fused together. The function of the tuft and spine are unknown. Absent at birth, the tuft develops around 5+12 months of age and is readily identifiable at the age of seven months.

Of the living, non-hybrid felids, the lion is rivalled only by the tiger in length, weight and height at the shoulder. Its skull is very similar to that of the tiger, although the frontal region is usually more depressed and flattened, with a slightly shorter postorbital region and broader nasal openings than that of a tiger. Due to the amount of skull variation in the two species, usually only the structure of the lower jaw can be used as a reliable indicator of species. The size and weight of adult lions varies across global range and habitats.

Average Female lions Male lions
Head-to-body length 140–175 cm (4 ft 7 in–5 ft 9 in) 170–298 cm (5 ft 7 in–9 ft 9 in)
Tail length 70–100 cm (2 ft 4 in–3 ft 3 in) 90–105 cm (2 ft 11 in–3 ft 5 in)
Weight 120–182 kg (265–401 lb),
124.2–139.8 kg (274–308 lb) in Southern Africa,
119.5 kg (263 lb) in East Africa,
110–120 kg (240–260 lb) in India
150–250 kg (330–550 lb),
187.5–193.3 kg (413–426 lb) in Southern Africa,
174.9 kg (386 lb) in East Africa,

160–190 kg (350–420 lb) in India

Accounts of a few individuals that were larger than average exist from Africa and India. Pleistocene forms like the American lion reached a maximum head-to-body length of 250 cm (8 ft 2 in).

Mane

During antagonistic confrontations with other lions, the mane makes the lion appear larger
Central African lioness with a partial mane

The lion's mane is the most recognisable feature of the species. The mane starts growing when lions are about a year old. Mane colour varies, and darkens with age. Research results indicate that environmental factors such as average ambient temperature influence the mane's colour and size. Mane length apparently signals fighting success in male–male relationships. Darker-maned individuals may have longer reproductive lives and higher offspring survival, although they suffer in the hottest months of the year. The presence, absence, colour, and size of the mane is associated with genetic precondition, sexual maturity, climate, and testosterone production; the rule of thumb is the darker and fuller the mane, the healthier the lion. In the Serengeti National Park, female lions favour males as mates with dense, dark manes. The main purpose of the mane is thought to protect the lion's neck and throat in territorial fights with rivals. The cooler ambient temperature in European and North American zoos may result in a heavier mane, while Asiatic lions usually have sparser manes than average African lions.

In the area of Pendjari National Park, almost all West African males are maneless or have very weak manes. Maneless male African lions have also been reported from Senegal, from Sudan's Dinder National Park, and from Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. The original male white lion from Timbavati was also maneless. The testosterone hormone has been linked to mane growth; therefore, castrated lions often have minimal to no mane, as the removal of the gonads inhibits testosterone production. Increased testosterone may be the cause of maned lionesses reported from northern Botswana.

Cave paintings of extinct European cave lions almost exclusively show hunting animals with no manes. Some suggest this as evidence that the males of this species were maneless, however, since the hunting usually involved groups of lionesses, this presumption remains unproven. In the Chauvet cave, there is a sketchy drawing of two maneless lions, appearing to be walking side by side. One is mostly obscured behind the other, with the former being larger than the latter, and shown with a scrotum.

Colour variation

White Lion
White lions owe their colouring to a recessive allele

The white lion is a rare morph with a genetic condition called leucism, which is caused by a double recessive allele. It is not albino, but has normal pigmentation in eyes and skin. White lion individuals have been occasionally encountered only in and around Kruger National Park and the adjacent Timbavati Private Game Reserve in eastern South Africa. They were removed from the wild in the 1970s, thus decreasing the white lion gene pool. Nevertheless, 17 births have been recorded in five different prides between 2007 and 2015. White lions are selected for breeding in captivity. Reportedly, they have been bred in camps in South Africa for use as trophies to be killed during canned hunts.

A melanistic Asiatic lion from Khuzestan in Iran was described by Austen Henry Layard, which was dark brown with nearly black patches.

Behaviour

Lake-Nakuru-Lions-in-Tree
Lions seeking refuge from flies by climbing a tree.

Lions live in groups that are called prides. Ten to forty lions may live in a pride. Each pride has a home area that is called its territory. Lions do not allow other carnivores (meat-eating animals) to hunt in their territory. A territory can be as large as 260 square kilometres (100 square miles). The lions roar is distinct to each individual, and is used for territorial making, and warning off other lions in separate prides (or lone individuals). This however, is usually carried out by competing males.

Lions are not built for speed like cheetahs, but go in for co-operative pack hunting. This is unusual in cats. The females usually do the hunting for the pride. However the males can sometimes help if needed, to take down large animals. After lions have brought down a prey, they suffocate it by biting the front of its face to prevent it breathing. It also has long retractable claws which act like grappling hooks, to keep hold of the prey.

Even though a lion is good at killing prey for food, they are not among the most dangerous animals for humans.

Breeding

Lion cub with mother
Mother Lion with her cub

A lioness is ready to have young when she is 2-3 years old. Baby lions are called cubs. Cubs are born after 3 1/2 months. The cubs are born blind; their eyes do not open until they are about a week old, and cannot see well until they are about two weeks old. Lions do not have a den (home) where they would live for a long time. The lioness conceals the cubs in thick bush, gullies or rocky outcrops. If the hiding place has been seen by other predators, then the lioness will move the cubs to a new hiding place. The cubs will be introduced to the pride at about 6 weeks old. The cubs are very vulnerable when the lioness goes out to hunt and needs to leave the cubs behind. Also, when a new male takes over a pride from another male, he usually kills all of the cubs. The cubs' mothers will then mate with the new pride male, which means that the first batch of new cubs will be his offspring. A litter of 2-6, usually 2-3, cubs are born and most of the time only 1-2 cubs survive until introduced to the pride where they are protected by the whole pride.

In zoos lions have been known to breed with tigers. If the parents are a male lion and a female tiger, it is called a liger. A tigon comes from a male tiger and a female lion.

Lions in heraldry

Lions appear in heraldry more often than any other animal. They traditionally symbolise courage, valour and royalty.

Images


Lion Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.