The lion (Panthera leo) is a large cat of the genus Panthera and belongs to the family Felidae, along with tigers, leopards and jaguars. It is native to Africa and India and is the second largest cat in the world, following the tiger.
While once found throughout much of Africa, Asia and Europe, lions are presently encountered in the wild only in Africa and in the Gir Forest of India (where it is found only in the Sasan-Gir National Park). A lions main habitats are open woodlands, savannas, scrub country and grassy plains.
Lions are known for their huge bodies and manes, and their social groups known as prides. One of the strongest felines in the world, they are apex predators and keystone predators, meaning they are extremely important in the food chain and have a large effect on the environment around them.
These big cats have become one of the most widely recognised animal symbols in human culture, extensively depicted in sculptures and paintings, on national flags, and in contemporary films and literature. Unfortunately, because of this, they are now a vulnerable animal, with their population decreasing.
As the world’s most social felines, there is lots to know about these amazing animals. Keep reading on to find out more and learn some cool lion facts.
The word ‘lion’ is derived from Latin: leo and Ancient Greek: λέων (leon). There are two types of lion subspecies. One is named Panthera leo melanochaita and lives across South and East Africa. The second lion subspecies has the scientific name Panther leo leo and lives in West Africa, Central Africa, and Asia. Up until 2017 there were two recognized subspecies, the African lions and Asiatic lions, but scientists reclassified lions that year.
It is thought the lion evolved in eastern and southern Africa about 124,000 years ago. They were found in many areas of the world, including Europe, North and Central America, as well as in Africa and the Middle East and India.
Lions disappeared from North America about 10,000 years ago, from the Balkans about 2,000 years ago, and from Palestine during the Crusades. Now they only live in Africa and in India.
Lions are very large animals that can weigh between 120 kg—249 kg (264 lbs—550 lbs) with a length between 1.4m—2.5m (4.7ft—8.2ft). Lions have sexual dimorphism, meaning that females (lionesses) typically have a different appearance and a smaller size than males, which is a special characteristic that is not present in other cat species. The biggest lion ever recorded and documented was around 375 kg (827 lbs) in weight.
Lions are tawny, brown, gold or blonde in color and have a short coat with a long tail that has a tuft of longer fur at the end. The functions of the tuft is unknown, and it is absent at birth and develops at around 5 1⁄2 months of age. The markings on their coat are much fainter than other big cats, which helps them to go unseen when they stalk their prey. Lions of young age have light spots on their coats that disappear as they grow.
Lions jaws are very strong and contain 30 teeth, including four fang-like canines and four carnassial teeth. Their bodies are muscular and slender, and they have flexible forelimbs and retractable claws. Their heels do not touch the ground when they walk, which is because they have big toes and pads on the bottom of their feet, which allow them to move quietly.
They have a deep chest with a short, rounded head, and a reduced neck. Their ears are disk shaped and their have excellent vision. In fact, the eyes of the lion are six times more sensitive to light than the eyes of a human. This means their night vision is far better than that of some of their prey.
Male lions have manes and this is thought to be connected with testosterone levels. They can range in color from blonde, to red, brown and black and covers the head, neck and chest of the male. The color and length of a lion’s mane not only reveal his age but also his behavior. Manes get darker as the lion ages so the darker mane of a lion in a pride denotes the oldest of the group.
Manes that are darker and longer often belong to lions that attract more females, and male lions are more likely to attack other lions blonder, and shorter manes, as this may show they are not as strong or able to fight as well.
There are big cats out there with color mutations, such as the white tiger or black panther. Likewise, there is an uncommon color mutation of lions that leaves their coat extremely pale, and these are known as the white lion.
Their white coat is caused by recessive traits. Because they are so unique, they had to be captured and moved into captivity in the second half of the 20th century to protect them. However, they’re now being reintroduced back into environments in South Africa and are successfully breeding and hunting in their native environments.
Lions usually live for 10 to 14 years in the wild, and for 20 to 25 years in captivity.
Lions are generalist carnivores, meaning they are able to thrive in a wide variety of environmental conditions and can make use of a variety of different resources. They are also called hyper-carnivores because meat makes more than 70% part of their diet. An adult male lion requires an average amount of 7 kg of meat per day to survive, although they could eat up to 43 kg! Females could eat up to 25 kg a day.
Their prey usually consists of mammals weighing between 190–550 kg (420–1,210 lbs) such as zebras, wildebeest and antelopes. They’ll also eat giraffe, buffalo, gazelle and warthog, and young elephant, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus. In times of shortage, they also catch and eat a variety of smaller animals, like rodents and reptiles. Lions also steal kills from hyenas, leopards and other predators.
Lions are both apex predators and keystone predators. As an apex predator, lions reside at the top of the food chain and no other creatures prey on them. As a keystone predator, they are very important in regulating the population of other animals in their environment. Without them in the ecosystem, the populations of the species that they prey upon would explode uncontrollably, which can cause detrimental impacts to the ecological community.
The majority of the hunting in a pride of lions is done by the females. They work together as a group to trap and capture prey they would otherwise not be able to get while hunting on their own. When lions hunt, they rely heavily on their teeth to grab prey, suffocating the animal or collapsing its trachea. Because of this constant use, about 40 percent of African lions have dental injuries.
Lions do not have great stamina, and they only run fast in short bursts. This means that they need to be close to their prey before starting the attack. Generally, they have a relatively low hunting success rate.
That being said, they are determined animals. While they don’t enjoy water, they are great swimmers and will chase their prey into and across water if they have to.
Once the prey has been caught, the females will allow the male lion to eat first before eating themselves. The cubs are at the bottom of the pile and have to be content with what remains once the adults have finished.
Contrary to popular belief, lions do not hunt humans! Lions can actually form bonds with humans under certain circumstances.
Generally, big cats are solitary animals. However, lions are the exception to this. Lions live in groups known as “prides”, which can contain as many as 40 lions. However, some lions of both sexes become nomads and prefer to live alone.
While not quite as rapid as the cheetah which can reach speeds of 70 mph, a lion can achieve a land speed of 50 mph for short distances. They have an amazing jump, and have been recorded springing as far as 36 feet. They can also climb extremely well, and are capable of climbing vertical tree trunks with ease.
Despite being very strong and often active, lions spend much of the day sleeping! In fact, the average amount of time they spend moving is two hours a day, and they can sleep for up to 20 hours a day! This is because they do not have many sweat glands so in order to conserve energy, they will lie about and rest. They are more active at night when it is cooler, although they do most of their hunting during the day.
On average, a lion pride contains around 10 to 15 lions, mainly compromised of related females; adults, sub-adults (between the ages of 2 and 4) and cubs, plus one or more resident males. The maximum number of adult male lions in a pride is 4.
Female cubs will stay with the pride as they grow older. When they reach sexual maturity, at about 2 years old, they will be hunters for the pride. Young male lions get kicked out of the pride by older males at the same age. These young males then live and roam in small groups (often with brothers and cousins), until they find another pride that they could take over and breed with females. This will often lead to fights with existing males in the pride.
When a male lion takes over a pride, it can kill all the lion cubs to bring the pride’s females into heat again, allowing them to breed and raise their own cubs. However, male lions become a member of the pride because the females accept them as the pride male. They will usually only be able to remain the pride male 3 to 5 years in the wild, as lionesses can turn on and kill older previously dominant males in a pride.
The job of a male in a pride is not only reproduction, but also protection. They guard their territory and keep out other pride and predators that might affect the food supply of their pride. Male lions patrol a territory of around 100m², marking trees and rocks with urine and roaring to warn off intruders.
The abundance of prey availability plays a significant role in the size of a lion pride. While females usually stay in their mother’s pride for life, food scarcity can force them out.
Asiatic lion prides differ from the African lion prides, and Asiatic lions actually divide themselves into two prides. Male Asiatic lions are solitary or associate with up to only three other males to form a loose pride. Females associate with up to 12 females to form a stronger pride together with their cubs. Female and male Asiatic lions usually associate only for a few days during the mating season, and very rarely travel or feed together.
Reproduction and Cubs
Both male and female lions become sexually mature between the ages of two and three, and by the age of four, most females have reproduced. They usually give birth to 2 to 3 cubs at a time and can give birth to a litter every two years. The the gestation period is quite short, around four months or 110 days.
Lionesses are polyestrous, meaning they can go into heat several times per year. The females in a group of lions typically give birth at about the same time. This allows for the young lions to play and grow up together with support from the entire pride.
When a cub is born, the process is kept secret. The pregnant lioness will give birth to a cub away from the rest of the pride and will proceed to hide the young from everyone else for the following six weeks. It is thought they do this to protect the cubs from intruding male lions and other predators.
As a newborn, a lion cub only weighs between 2.6 and 4.6 pounds (1.2 to 2.1 kg). Lion cubs are born blind and their eyes open around seven days after birth. They are yellowish-red in color and can look like a domestic cat. They’re also usually covered in darker spots that help to camouflage them in their den to protect them whilst the adults have gone out to hunt.
As lions are mammals, the females nurse their cubs for about 6 to 7 months. The cubs are totally dependent on their mothers for the initial 3 months of their lives, and after 3 months they start eating meat. A mother does not integrate herself and her cubs back into the pride until the cubs are six to eight weeks old, and, while they are in this period, she will move her cubs to a new den site several times a month to avoid predators, carrying each lion cub, one by one, by the nape of their neck.
Young cubs begin to participate in pride kills at 11 months. Unfortunately, less than half of cubs make it to be a year old and four out of five have died by the time they are two, generally either from animal attacks or starvation.
That being said, lionesses are not only caring towards their own young, but if a cub is neglected in any way, a lioness will allow it to suckle in an effort to help the cub survive.
Lions can roar very loudly! Their roar can measure up to about 114 decibels in volume, which is louder than any other big cat and can even breach the pain threshold of human hearing. It can be heard as far as 5 miles away (8 km).
Lions usually roar this loudly when they are trying to defend their territories or ward off other males. A roar also allows members of a pride to find one another as its sound can travel such long distances.
Location and Habitat – Where Do Lions Live?
Lions are exclusively found in Africa, scattered across Sub-Saharan Africa. However, there is one species of lion — the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo leo) — that only lives in Gujarat, India. There are around 650 wild individuals of this species.
Despite dubbed the “king of the jungle”, the lion very rarely enters a closed forest, and they are totally absent from the rainforest. They prefer grassy plains and savannahs, open woodlands with bushes and scrub bordering rivers. The home area of a lion pride range from 13 to 100 square miles.
Lions can live high up, too. On Mount Elgon, an extinct shield volcano on the border of Uganda and Kenya, lions have been recorded up to an elevation of 3,600 m (11,800 ft) and close to the snow line on Mount Kenya.
Historically, lions spanned most of the central rainforest zone and the Sahara desert. They also lived in southern Europe and Asia.
Lions are listed as “Vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This is a step above being declared “Endangered”. The lion population is at risk and under threat from habitat loss and hunting.
Between 1993 and 2014, the population of lions decreased by 42%. The IUCN’s last assessment places the adult population between 23,000 to 39,000 individuals. The population is even more in jeopardy, because the remaining populations are often geographically isolated from each other, which causes inbreeding.
Lions do not have any natural predators as they are apex predators and up at the top of the food chain.
The biggest threat to lions are humans, particularly hunters. Poachers hunt lions for their bones, which are used in traditional medicines as well as in expensive wines. They are also hunted by trophy hunters and big game hunters. Loss of habitat and lack of food is another common threat to lions.
It is thought that around 10,000 years ago lions were the most widespread mammal outside of humans. Unfortunately, there are species of lion that are now extinct. Let’s take a look at these lions below.
The Cape lion was last seen in South Africa, where it lived, in 1858. It had a much darker main than other species of lion. The Cape lion is now recognized as a subpopulation rather than a different species or subspecies.
The Barbary lion was thought to go extinct in the 19th century, with the last documented sighting being in Algeria’s Atlas Mountains in 1942. It used to live across the North Coast of Africa and even stretched as far as Egypt and Morocco.
Cave Lion (Panthera leo spelaea)
The Cave lion disappeared around 12,000 years ago. It was found across Eurasia and into Alaska and went extinct with the collapse of the mammoth steppe. It was larger than today’s surviving lions.
American Lion (Panthera leo atrox)
The American lion also disappeared around 12,000 years ago. It was found across most of the modern day United States and Mexico and was the largest lion species to date.
When are lions most active?
Lions are primarily nocturnal (active at night) or crepuscular (becoming active at twilight or before sunset). Lions spend much of their time resting, often up to 20 hours per day. Lions rest for lots of different reasons, including energy conservation, lack of prey and to avoid the heat of the day.
What is a lions habitat?
Lions are mostly found in Africa, with one species, the Asiatic lion, found in India. In these locations they inhabit a wide range of habitats from grassy plains and savannahs to open woodlands with bushes. Despite the lyrics of a popular song, the one place you are almost certain never to see a lion sleeping is in the Jungle.
Why do lions have tails?
A Lion’s tail comes in handy in a variety of ways, and it is no surprise that they have evolved to maintain their tales because of how much they use them. Physically, a Lion’s tail helps it to balance. But it will also use the tail to signal both in parental situations and hunting.
Where do lions sleep?
Generally a Lion will sleep wherever it can keep cool. They don’t have many sweat glands and need to conserve energy. Hot environments can make that difficult, so you are likely to find Lions sleeping in thickets and brush, under trees or area with a good through breeze.
Lion Fun Fact!
- Without their coats, lion and tiger bodies are so similar that only experts can tell them apart.