The king of beasts, the lion is perhaps the best known and recognised among the wild animal since time immemorial. Lions have been depicted widely in the popular imagination as the symbol of majestic grace. In sculptures, paintings, films, on national flags, literature, the image of a lion features in a big way. Panthera Leo is the scientific name of a lion. Carl Linnaeus used the scientific name of Felis Leo for lion in 1758. Lorenz Oken, a German naturalist coined the genus name Panthera in 1816. They are powerfully built cats belonging to the Felidae family. It is the second-largest species of the cat family. The skulls of lions and tigers are very similar. However, the postorbital region of the lion is shorter than that of the tiger. They also have broader nasal openings.
The physical characteristics of a lion are distinguished by their well-developed muscle. The body of the lion is long and they have a large head. Their legs are short. The lion is sexually dimorphic, that is the male and female exhibit different characteristics. The most obvious difference between a male and a female lion is that the males have a majestic mane. The formation of the manes however can differ and have different varieties. A full-grown male excluding his tail is about 6 to 7 feet long and weighs around 170 to 230 kg. The lioness is smaller and weighs much less. The lion has a short coat and the colour varies from the buff yellow orange-brown or silvery grey and dark brown. They have a tuft on the tail which is usually darker in colour than the coat.
Types of Lions
Panthera Leo is the only type of surviving lion at present. From this, 7 lion subspecies have been derived. It is important to know that all the surviving lion species are in danger of extinction. The sub-species that are currently recognised are:
Katanga lion (Southwest African lion)
Congo Lion (Northeast Congo lion)
Transvaal Lion (Southeastern lion)
Nubian Lion (East African lion)
West African lion
Historically, between the mid 18th century and mid 20th century, there were 26 recognised lion specimens. In 2005, eleven species were recognized as valid. Between 2008 and 2016, IUCN Red List assessors recognized and used only two sub-specific names i.e. P.I. Leo for African lions and P.I. persica for the Asiatic lions. However, fossil records show that other lion subspecies or sister species to the modern lion thrived in the prehistoric times.
Where Do Lions Live?
The main habitation of the African lion is across Sub-Saharan Africa. The preferred lion’s habitat is grassy plains and savannahs and open woodlands with bushes. In Africa, however, lions were found in the Sahara desert and most parts of the central rainforest zone, but it became extinct in North Africa in the 1960s, except in the southern part of Sudan.
The Asiatic lion is found only in and around Gir National Park in Gujarat, India which has dry savannah forest and very dry deciduous scrub forest. It was once found in places between Sind, Punjab to Bengal and the Narmada River. Lions became extinct from North America about 10,000 years ago. Till about 2000 years ago they were found in the Balkans. Similarly, they were in Palestine during the Crusades. Now they are hardly found outside the National Parks.
What Do Lions Eat?
The lion is a generalist hyper-carnivore. In simple terms, it means that they can survive in a wide variety of environmental conditions and require large quantities of meat in their diet. Lions hunt and eat. They hunt mainly mammals like medium-sized to large- hoofed animals or ungulates like wildebeest, African buffalo, gemsbok, zebras, antelopes and giraffe. Sambal deer and chital are preferred prey. They occasionally also kill larger animals, especially sick or injured ones and eat found meat such as carrion.
Young lions refrain from hunting until they are almost a year old. Lions eat up their prey at the place of the hunt. Sometimes they are required to pull the large prey elsewhere. Though sometimes the pride members tend to fight over the meat, generally all pride members eat their required amount including old and crippled lions. The lion and the lioness eat around 7 and 5 kilos of meat per day respectively.
Lions feed on carrion, which is thought to provide a large portion of their diet. They have carrion whenever an opportunity arises. They look out for animals dead from natural causes or that killed by other animals. They try to locate circling vultures which indicate the death or distress of an animal.
The most recognisable part of the male lion is its mane. The mane starts growing when the lions are about one year old. The colour becomes darker with age. It has been shown by the researchers that the colour and the size of the mane depend on environmental factors like the temperature. The mane of the Asiatic lion is thinner than those of their African counterparts.
Not all male lions have a mane. Male lions in Pendjari National Park do not have mane or have a very thin and short mane. Lions without manes have also been found in Senegal, Sudan and other places.
Fun Facts about Lions
Lions are really social and live together in groups known as prides.
Lions have gender-specific roles – while the male lions defend the pride’s territory, the females do most of the hunting. However, the males eat first!
It is an endangered species and is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The lions roar so loudly that it can be heard from a distance of 5 miles!
Want to know a lion’s age? See his mane – the darker it is the older he is.
When walking, the lion’s heels do not touch the ground.
A lion loves to sleep and can sleep up to 20 hours a day.
Lions are really bad hunters.
Patrolling, urinating and roaring – the ways a lion marks his territory!
Not all lions have manes!
Lions eat tsamma melons for moisture in the Kalahari Desert to survive extreme drought conditions.