The lion (Panthera leo) is a predator belonging to the howler cats in the feline family (Felidae). Of all felines, only the tiger is larger. The size and mane of the male give the animal an imposing appearance, which is why the lion is known as the king of animals in large parts of the world. In Europe, by the way, it took over this role from the brown bear only during the Middle Ages.
The lion has often been the subject of folklore and symbolism. Thus, the lion is depicted in the arms of several countries, regions and cities, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Sri Lanka.
The lion is still found in certain parts of Africa and in a small part of India, but it also used to be common in the Middle East and southeastern Europe. Lions live in groups (the only feline that lives primarily in social groups) and lionesses generally hunt together, providing a greater share of the hunt than male lions.
The scientific name of the species was published as Felis leo in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus, generally distinguishing two subspecies:
- African lion (Panthera leo leo)
- Persian lion or Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica).
The African lion is sometimes split into subspecies. Two of these subspecies are believed to be extinct, the Berber lion (Panthera leo leo) from Morocco and northern Algeria, and the Cape lion (Panthera leo melanochaita) from South Africa. However, in zoos, such as the Port Lympne Zoo, lions have been discovered that are believed to be Barbary lions. The male’s mane extended well below their belly and the animals’ heads were more square than those of other lions. These are specific characteristics of berber lions.
However, a publication by the IUCN task group based in part on molecular characteristics argues that the African and Asiatic lion classification is untenable. This concluded that there is a clear split between the southeastern population and the rest of the populations (including Asiatic), but that based on morphological studies, a further split may be in order.
The lion is a large feline with a broad head, a short muzzle and relatively small, round ears. It has a short-haired ash gray or sandy yellow coat (but ranging from ochre brown to nearly white) and a dark tassel at the tip of the tail. Scattered over the coat are faint spots, which are particularly noticeable in younger animals. The spots fade as the animal ages and will usually eventually disappear. Most males have dense black, brown or yellow manes of varying lengths on the head, neck and shoulders. In the now-extinct subspecies from North Africa and the Cape, the moon ran across the belly like a fringe. It usually takes about six years for the moon to develop properly. Femurs are smaller and have no mane.
The tail is between 60 and 100 cm long and the shoulder height is 100 to 128 cm. Males are larger than females. The male has a head to body length of 172 to 250 cm and a body weight of 150 to 280 kg; the female has a head to body length of 140 to 192 cm and a body weight of 100 to 182 kg. The lion is anatomically very similar to the tiger, although its fur, habitat and way of life are different.
A lion has 26 teeth. At the top, it has 6 incisors, 2 canines, 2 front molars and 4 molars. At the bottom, it has 6 incisors, 2 canines, 2 front molars and 2 molars.
Lifestyle of a lion
The lion is the only feline that has a social rather than a solitary lifestyle. It normally lives in groups of varying composition, but usually consists of an average of five adult females (two to 20), one or two adult males (up to eight) and their young and immature offspring. Sometimes a group consists of more than 30 lions. Usually the animals move separately or in smaller groups. When animals from the same group encounter each other, a ritual of rubbing, licking and purring follows. Strange lions, both males and females, are usually chased away. Lionesses stay with the same group for their entire lives, males usually no more than three or four years. Males that do not belong to a group live a nomadic existence, alone or with other males. Because of this wandering existence, males generally do not live as long as females.
The group usually has a fixed territory. In the Serengeti, however, they usually follow the large migrating herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle.
The lion is inactive most of the day. Sometimes it rests in the shade for up to 20 hours a day and is active only to hunt. The lion feeds mainly on prey animals between 50 and 300 kg, but if these are not around it goes off on smaller and larger animals, between fifteen and a thousand kg. It is mainly the females that hunt; 81% of all food within a group is caught by females. However, males are also capable of killing prey.
The lion hunts alone, in pairs or in larger groups. The larger the hunting group, the larger the animal caught. A group of lions primarily hunts antelope, zebra, kaffir buffalo, deer (in India) and other large herbivores. They lure the prey into a trap by chasing it to a spot where a number of other lionesses are ready to catch it. The prey is first stalked, then the animal attacks with a quick sprint. When attacking, the lion can reach speeds of 60 mph. Larger prey animals are strangled, while smaller animals are killed by biting the head, neck or chest.
Once large prey is caught, the hierarchy within a lion pride becomes apparent. The adult male gets to eat first. When he is finished eating, the lionesses and cubs may eat the remains. A lion also eats carrion and sometimes steals food from other animals, such as hyenas, leopards and cheetahs. The lion does not normally attack humans. Sick or injured animals settle for fairly small prey items, such as rats, lizards, fish or even nuts.
If the leader(s) of a group is challenged by one or more wandering males, he will engage in combat to remain the leader. Sometimes this also happens to male cubs who have grown up. Dominant lions and challengers are usually between five and 10 years old. The loser must leave the group and the winner becomes or remains the leader. When there is a new leader, he will first kill all the cubs currently alive. This way he makes sure that the females become fertile again (females are fertile as long as they do not have cubs) and can reproduce.
There is no set mating season. However, it is common for lionesses within a group to enter estrus simultaneously, which usually results in several cubs being born at the same time. Females also suckle the cubs of other females. Cub mortality is quite high, partly because new males kill cubs and because weaker cubs are usually left to fend for themselves.
After a gestation period of one hundred days, two to six cubs are born in a shelter among long grass, in dense thickets or among rocks. The cubs are blind at birth: the eyes open after three to 11 days. After a month they begin to move around more, and after two months they accompany adults on hunts. The suckling period lasts about eight months. After 18 months they are independent and mature after five years.
The lion has a loud roar. The roar of the male is louder than that of the female. Especially at night, they let out a loud roar, which can sometimes be heard up to a distance of eight kilometers. With the howl, the lion maintains contact with other members of the group: it signals its presence and position, and possibly its status within the group.
In the wild, a lion lives to be about 10 to 14 years old; in captivity, a lion can live to be over 20 years old.
Distribution and habitat of a lion
Lions live in the open savannahs, grass plains, scrublands, semi-deserts and lightly forested regions of sub-Saharan Africa. It is the largest predator here. An isolated population of Persian lions lives in the Gir Forest National Park in India.
In early times, the lion’s habitat extended across Eurasia from Europe to India and they were found throughout Africa, except for dense forests and dry deserts. Pleistocene and early Holocene bones have been found in Europe, showing that the lion occurred here. Rock drawings from such places as the Grotte Chauvet in central France also indicate this.
The lion disappeared from Egypt around the year 1000 B.C. From ancient sources (such as from Herodotus and Aristotle) we know that the lion still occurred in the Balkans around the beginning of the era. From the 2nd century AD, the animals disappeared from Central Europe, presumably due to human hunting. The last lions of Europe occurred in the Caucasus until the 10th century.
Around 1900, the lion was extirpated in northwest Africa and the Cape. In Iran, the last lion was killed in 1942.
Current distribution and numbers
Lions are now found only in central and eastern Africa and in India.
In Africa, the lion is declining in numbers. The lion is particularly affected by hunting: because lions also kill livestock, they are considered harmful. It is estimated that there were still about 32,000 lions in Africa in 2012.
In the early 20th century, a few pairs of lions were spotted in India. They were protected there and used as a tourist attraction. This group consisted of 270 lions in 1955 and has been under protection ever since. Today, about 400 Asiatic lions live in the Gir Forest National Park and there are plans to build a second population in the Palpur-Kuno Reserve.
In addition, thousands of lions live in zoos worldwide. Some circuses also keep lions.