The African lion, Panthera leo, is an iconic animal, symbolising power and strength, and endearingly branded as the “King of Beasts”.
Through the eons of time, several species and sub species of lions have been identified, having once survived on several continents. Today wild populations are restricted to Sub-Saharan Africa and west India. The IUCN lists lions as Endangered in the categories of the IUCN Red List.
Lions belong to the Felidae family. There is marked sexual dimorphism, where adult males and females are distinctly different in appearances. Apart from males being much larger than females, males have an impressive mane, which can vary in colour, ranging from blonde to black. The tails of both genders have dark hairy tufts which conceal a hard claw-like nail called a spur. It is uncertain what the spur is used for.
Lions are classed as top predators or apex predators meaning they are at the top of their respective food chain. Successful hunting is aided by the fact that they are social, forming prides made up of related males and females or male only coalitions. Hunting is a cooperative affair, where often the targeted meal is an injured or weak individual. Diet range is massive for these carnivores, ranging from small mammals to large mammals like buffalo and giraffe. There is documented proof of some lion prides even specialising in hunting elephants. Lions spend most of their time inactive, laying up, and are therefore more active during the cooler night hours.
Territories are fiercely defended against any lion intrusions. Fights between male lions are extremely vicious and often lead to serious injury or death. Male lions competing for and taking over a territorial pride are known to kill any cubs in the pride sired by the ousted male. There is little tolerance towards other predator species which may be opportunistically killed if favourable conditions prevail. It is well known that there is especially no love lost between lions and hyenas.
On a social level, pride members and male coalitions develop very close bonds. Greetings are met with affectionate head and neck rubbing and flopping down close to one another. Lionesses and cubs regularly display playful behaviour, the long, tufted tails becoming a frequent target of mock hunting. Paw slapping with claws retracted in efforts to trip each other up is another play tactic. Ear position and tail twitching are visual clues that distinguish play versus aggression. Rapid tail twitching, ears flattened and back together with deep growling signal threat and aggression.
Lionesses have an average gestation period of 110 days. Two to four cubs are usually born, there is a high mortality rate in lion cubs. In the wild, lions usually live for up to 15 years, females living longer than males. In captivity lions can live to 30 years.
Outside of Protected Areas, lions are rarely tolerated by human settlements in rural areas because lions resort to killing livestock and can pose a serious threat to human life. Where man-eating lions are known and identified, these are obviously hunted and destroyed.
A dozen more interesting lion facts:
- Lions do not have great stamina, despite reaching speeds of 80 KPH, this dash is short lived.
- Lions are very vocal, using roaring as a communicative tool, but sub adult lions are unable to roar.
- When ambient conditions are right, a lion’s roar can travel up to 8 kms.
- Males dominate at kills, even if they don’t participate in the hunt, they will feed first.
- Males reach sexual maturity before females.
- Lions have the same genus as leopard, snow leopard, jaguar and tiger.
- Lions scavenge readily and will rob other predators of their prey.
- Cubs are born with dark spots which continually fade to maturity.
- White lions have a colour variation caused by a double recessive allele.
- Prey is usually killed by suffocation, either through strangulation of the throat or a clamping type bite to the mouth and nostrils.
- Lions keep a vigilant look out for vultures going to ground, signalling a potential meal to scavenge.
- Large male lions weigh up to 250 kilograms.
Lionesses in day time action
Lionesses in playful mode
Male lion (with dark mane)
Facts researched on the Internet. Words by John Llewellyn. Pictures kind courtesy of Charlie Lynam.