Lion (Panthera leo), large, powerfully built cat (family Felidae), second only to the tiger. The proverbial “king of beasts,” the lion has been one of the most famous wild animals since earliest times. Lions are most active at night and live in a variety of habitats, but prefer grassland, savanna, dense scrub and open forest. Historically, they ranged throughout much of Europe, Asia, and Africa, but are now found primarily in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. An isolated population of about 650 Asiatic lions forms a somewhat smaller breed that lives under strict protection in India’s Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary.
The lion is a well-muscled cat with a long body, large head and short legs. Size and appearance vary considerably between the sexes. The prominent feature of the male is his mane, which varies between different individuals and populations. It may be completely absent; it may fringe the face; or it may be full and shaggy, covering the back of the head, neck, and shoulders and continuing onto the neck and chest to join a fringe along the belly. In some lions, the mane and fringe are very dark, almost black, giving the cat a majestic appearance. Manes make males look larger and can be used to intimidate rivals or impress potential mates. An adult male is about 6-7 feet (1.8-2.1 meters) long, not including the 1-meter tail; stands about 3 feet (1.2 meters) tall at the shoulder and weighs 370-500 pounds (170-230 kg). The female, or lioness, is smaller, with a body length of 1.5 meters (5 feet), a shoulder height of 0.9-1.1 meters (3 feet), and a weight of 120-180 kilograms (1,000-2,000 pounds). The lion’s coat is short and varies in color from buff yellow, orange-brown or silvery gray to dark brown, with a tuft at the tip of the tail that is usually darker than the rest of the coat.
Lions are unique among cats in that they live in a group, or Pride. Members of a pride usually spend the day in several scattered groups that may unite to hunt or share a meal. A pride consists of several generations of lionesses, some of whom are related, a smaller number of breeding males, and their cubs. The group may consist of up to 4 or up to 37 members, but about 15 is the average size. Each pride has a well-defined territory consisting of a core area that is strictly defended against intruding lions and a fringe area where some overlap is tolerated. Where prey is abundant, an area can be as small as 20 square kilometers (8 square miles), but when game is sparse, it can cover up to 400 square kilometers. Some Prides have been known for decades to use the same territory and pass the territory between females. Lions proclaim their territory by roaring and by scent marking. Their distinctive roar is usually delivered the night before a night hunt and again before rising at dawn. Males also announce their presence by urinating on bushes, trees, or simply on the ground, leaving a pungent scent. Defecation and rubbing on bushes leave different scent markings.
Lions hunt a variety of animals ranging from rodents and baboons to African buffalo and hippopotamus, but predominantly hunt medium to large ungulates such as wildebeest, zebra, and antelope. Prey preferences vary geographically as well as between neighboring countries. Lions have been known to take elephants and giraffes, but only if the individual is young or particularly sick. They readily eat any meat they can find, including carrion and fresh kills that they intercept or forcibly steal from hyenas, cheetahs, or wild dogs. Female lions, living in open savannas, do most of the hunting, while males usually get their meals from the female’s kills. However, male lions are also skilled hunters and hunt frequently in some areas. Proud males in scrub or forested habitat spend less time with females and hunt most of their own meals. Nomadic males must always secure their own food.
Although a group of hunting lions is potentially nature’s most formidable predator on land, a high proportion of their hunts fail. The cats pay no attention to wind direction (which can carry their scent to their prey), and they tire after short distances. Typically, they stalk prey from close cover and then break out to get it in a short running, quick rush. After pouncing on the prey, the lion leaps at its neck and bites until the animal is strangled. Other members of the pride quickly scramble to feed on the kill, Usually fighting for access. Hunts are sometimes conducted in groups, with members of a pride circling a herd or approaching it from opposite directions and then approaching a kill in the resulting panic. The cats typically gorge themselves and then rest near them for several days. An adult may consume more than 34 kg of meat in a single meal and rest for a week before resuming the hunt. When prey is abundant, both sexes typically spend 21 to 22 hours a day resting, sleeping, or sitting and hunting for only 2 or 3 hours a day.
Reproduction and life cycle
Both sexes are polygamous and breed year-round, but females are usually restricted to the one or two adult males of their pride. In captivity, lions often breed every year, but in the wild they usually breed no more than once every two years. Females are receptive to mating for three or four days within a largely variable reproductive cycle. During this time, a pair generally mates every 20-30 minutes with up to 50 copulations per 24 hours. Such prolonged copulation not only stimulates ovulation in the female, but also ensures paternity for the male by excluding other males. The gestation period is about 108 days, and litter size varies from one to six young; two to four are common.
Newborn cubs are helpless and blind and have thick fur with dark spots that usually disappear with maturity. Young can follow their mothers at about three months of age and are weaned by six or seven months. They begin participating in kills by 11 months, but probably cannot survive on their own until they are two years old. Although lionesses care for cubs other than their own, they are surprisingly inattentive mothers and often leave their cubs alone for up to 24 hours. There is a correspondingly high mortality rate (e.g., 86 percent in the Serengeti), but survival rates improve after the second year of life. In the wild, sexual maturity is reached at three or four years of age. Some female cubs remain within the pride when they reach sexual maturity, but others are forced and join other prides or migrate as nomads. Male boys are forced out of the pride at about age three and become nomads until they are old enough to try to take over another pride (after age five). Many adult males remain nomads for life. Mating opportunities for nomadic males are rare, and competition between male lions to defend a pride’s territory and mate with pride females is fierce. Cooperative partnerships of two to four males are more successful at maintaining tenure with a pride than individuals, and larger coalitions father more surviving offspring per male. Small coalitions typically include related men, while larger groups often include independent individuals. When a new cohort of males is able to take over a pride, they will attempt to kill young boys sired by their predecessors. This has the effect of shortening the time before the boys’ mothers are ready to mate again. Females try to prevent this infanticide by hiding or directly defending their cubs; lionesses are generally more successful at protecting older cubs because they would leave the pride sooner. In the wild, lions rarely live more than 8 to 10 years, mainly due to attacks by humans or other lions or the effects of kicks and blows from intended prey. In captivity, they may live 25 years or longer.
Conflicts with humans, especially herders, outside parks are a major problem, and humans living in parks remain the predominant source of mortality for most populations. In 1994, for example, a variant of canine distemper caused the deaths of an estimated 1,000 lions in Serengeti National Park. The apparent source of the virus was domestic dogs living along the periphery of the park. Despite these challenges, lion populations are healthy in many African reserves and in Gir, and they are a major tourist attraction. However, high population densities of lions can be a problem, not only for local ranchers, but also for the cheetah and African wild dog-critically endangered carnivores that lose their kills, cubs, and lives to lions.
The genus Panthera includes leopards, jaguars and tigers as well as lions. In captivity, lions were made to mate with other big cats. The offspring of a lion and a tigress is called a liger; that of a tiger and a lioness, a tigon; that of a leopard and a lioness, a leopon. However, the cat known as the mountain lion (see Puma) is a new world member of the genus Puma.