Lion

Panthera leo

SUBFAMILY

Pantherinae

TAXONOMY

Felis leo (Linnaeus, 1758), Africa. Asiatic subspecies, Panthera l. pérsica, once widespread in southwest Asia, now only in the Gir Forest, Gujarat, India.

OTHER COMMON NAMES

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Length 62-100 in (160-250 cm); tail 24-40 in (60-100 cm); weight 270-570 lb (120-260 kg). Males up to 50% larger than females. Uniform, short tawny coat, white form locally in South Africa. Black on back of ears. Spots on cubs may remain faintly visible on abdomen and legs of adults. Tufted tail. Blond to black mane in adult males, possibly serving as protection during fights, a signal of gender at distance, and an indication of fitness. Asiatic lion has less mane growth on top of head and longitudinal fold of skin running along belly.

DISTRIBUTION

Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding rainforest. Asiatic lion in Gir Forest, India.

HABITAT

Wide range, except tropical rainforest and interior of Sahara desert. Open woodland, and mixed areas of thick bush, scrub and grass are favored.

BEHAVIOR

The most social of cats. Lion society is based on the pride, a group of related females and cubs. Pride size varies from two to 18 adult females depending on habitat and prey availability, but

is typically four to six. A single male or coalition of up to seven males, almost always unrelated to the females, holds tenure over the pride (sometimes several prides), excluding other males from mating. Pride membership is stable, but members often scatter in sub-groups throughout the range, especially when foraging, and individuals spend considerable time alone.

Prides are strongly territorial. Males mark territory by urine-marking and by roaring, usually at night, when the sound can travel 5 mi (8 km). They actively patrol the edges of territory, whereas females tend to stay nearer the center. Males face strong competition for pride tenure, and average tenure is only two to three years (larger coalitions last longer). Males are also highly social, and when not in tenure of a pride will form coalitions to hunt and scavenge together. Large coalitions are invariably related, but pairs and trios of males may be unrelated.

Lion density varies from 0.4 to 15 per 100 mi2 (250 per km2), linked to seasonal prey availability. A pride's home range usually varies from 8 to 200 mi2 (20 to 500 km2), but can be more than 800 mi2 (2,000 km2) in arid zones.

FEEDING ECOLOGY AND DIET

Medium to large ungulates, including buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, and waterbuck make up bulk of diet, but lions will take a wide range of prey from small rodents and birds to young rhinos, hippos and elephant. Asiatic lions prey largely on deer and livestock. Lions also frequently scavenge.

Most hunting nocturnal, but may ambush prey in daytime at waterholes in dry season. Females do most of the hunting, males tackling larger, slower prey such as giraffe or buffalo. Will hunt cooperatively, fanning out to partially surround prey, but more often only one or two lions hunt, while the remainder watch. Lions can only reach 36 mph (58 kph), so rely on stalking to within range of a short dash. They kill prey by suffocation, clamping their strong jaws on an animal's windpipe or muzzle.

Only one in four hunts are successful, with moonless nights best. Lions eat communally, but males take the "lion's share" of the food before lionesses are allowed to eat, then cubs last of all. In lean times, cubs frequently die of starvation. Lions need about up to 15 lb (7 kg) of food per day, but feeding is often irregular and a male may eat 110 lb (50 kg) at one time.

REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY

Polygamous. Breeding largely non-seasonal. Females are sexually mature at three to four years. Mating occurs about three times per hour for several days, and a female may mate with more than one pride male. Gestation around 110 days, litter size one to six. Cub mortality can be very high, up to 75% in first year if prey is scarce. Cubs start to eat meat after three months, but nurse until six months. Males leave the pride at two to four years old (earlier if forced out by a pride takeover), most females remain in the pride.

Males that take over a pride will attempt to kill young cubs (though mothers often hide them successfully), to ensure their own chance of fathering offspring during their brief pride tenure. Females show a burst of heightened sexual activity (but are infertile) for three months following a takeover, attracting other males and increasing competition for tenure, to ensure the fittest males breed. Once pride males are established, females often breed synchronously, which increases cub survival rate. Females may also rear young communally, and cubs suckle freely from lactating females.

CONSERVATION STATUS

Classed as Vulnerable by IUCN. Panthera l. persica is Critically Endangered, with only around 250 mature animals. Lions are heavily persecuted outside of protected areas and loss of habitat and prey base is contributing to population decline. Total population may be less than 10,000 breeding individuals, with no one population larger than 1,000.

SIGNIFICANCE TO HUMANS

Lions are depicted in the art of many ancient cultures, including European cave paintings from more than 30,000 years ago. Numerous African cultures still believe in the magical and healing properties of lion body parts. The extinct Barbary lion featured in the circuses of ancient Rome.

Where lions conflict with domestic stock, they are vulnerable to poisoned carcasses and trapping and problem animals may be legally shot in some countries. Lions may also pose a threat to human life, turning man-eater if old, injured, or when prey is scarce.

Regulated trophy hunting is allowed in a number of countries, mainly in southern Africa. Preferential shooting of large trophy males is claimed to have adversely affected population dynamics in some locations, with evidence of inbreeding as a result. ♦

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