Lion Panthera leo (Linnaeus, 1758)

African lion male and female
Photo: Quinette Kruger

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Panthera
Species: leo

Description: Spoor - Lion Tags: Spoor, Lion

Common names: Ambessa (Amharic), ibhubesi (Zulu), ingonyama (Xhosa), leeu (Afrikaans), lion (English), ngala (Shangaan), simba (Swahili), tau (Sesotho/Setswana)

General information Lions (Panthera leo) are among the great or roaring cats of the family Felidae. The lion is the largest carnivore and cat species on the African continent, often referred to as the King of Beasts. Male lions make it quite clear who is in charge of a territory and their deafening roars can be heard for up to 8 km through the African night sky. The characteristic roaring of lions is used by both sexes to communicate with other members of the pride and their vocalisations also include growling, snorts, hisses, and whimpering.

Several subspecies of lion may have existed and, although names such as Cape lion (Panthera leo melanochaita), Kruger lion (Panthera leo krugeri), Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo) and South West African (currently Namibia) lion (Panthera leo verneyi) still appear in publications, the species (African lion - Panthera leo) and the subspecies (Asiatic lion - Panthera leo persica) are currently recognised: 

Given the focus and activities of ALPRU, the African Large Predator Research Unit, the information presented here will focus mainly on the African lion (Panthera leo).

Physical characteristics The coat is tawny yellow, with accents of black in the manes, at the back of the ears, between the toes, and the tail tips of mature animals. The lion is the only cat with dimorphic characteristics, where the sub-adult and adult males have manes. In adult males, the manes cover the head and neck, in some cases extending backwards on the chest and belly into the groin. The manes vary from yellow to black and tend to grow fuller and darker as the animal ages.

The lion is the only cat species with black tufted tails in both sexes. The tail tuft also hides a hard spur (in most lions) which is separated from the last vertebra of the tail. Lions have a tawny body colour, but it may vary from almost a silvery yellowish to a reddish brown with paler undersides. The bellies of females are yellowish to almost white. Faint to more prominent spots, almost like those of leopards, are visible on young and may even be retained into adulthood, especially on the legs and belly.

A lion's legs are short and massive, with large feet and heavy, sharp claws. Lions have five digits on the front feet and four on the hind feet. Lions are known as digitigrade - that is, they walk on their toes. The fifth digit or thumb (dew claw) on the front feet is set well back and high removed from the others on the leg and does not show in the tracks. The large, curved, sharp claws can be retracted into sheaths on the toes to prevent them from becoming blunted.

Although they literally live continents apart, the difference in appearance between the African and Asiatic lion is rather insignificant. Asiatic lions have a flap of skin on the abdomen, called the belly fold, which is absent in the African lion. The manes of African male lions are fuller than those of their Asian counterparts. The shape of their sculls also differ slightly.

Typical of cats, lions have the following dental formula:

 3    1     3     1
[ I – C – P – M – ] x 2 = 30
 3    1     2     1

The upper outer incisors (I) are considerably larger than the remainder. These are rounded, heavily built and recurved towards the points. The canines (C) are heavy and sharp and slightly flattened on their inner sides. The second upper premolar (P) is small and rounded and rises to a central point. The other two upper cheek teeth are adapted to cutting; the whole length of the upper fourth premolar has a sharp cutting edge and the first upper molar (M) is tiny. The outer incisors in the lower jaw are larger than the remainder, but do not reach the development of the upper. The canines are recurved. The cheek teeth are all adapted to cutting. The first lower molar has a sharp edge which, occluding on the back half of the fourth upper premolar, serves to keep the edges of these two teeth continually sharpened. The huge canines and canine-like upper outer incisors are adapted for the holding of heavy prey and the delivery of the strangling, killing bite. The remainder of the teeth (premolars) are adapted to slicing up the food. The small upper first molars, set at an angle to the cheek teeth, become worn on their front edges and while they may assist in keeping tough food from sliding backwards during the process of slicing, they have little or no grinding ability.

The tongue is covered with sharp, curved projections (papillae) used for rasping meat off bones, cleaning the fur, and drinking. The neck is thick and heavy to withstand the shocks of the violent actions of the head and teeth.

Size (adults) There is considerable variation in the adult size of African lions, therefore, the dimensions provided in the table should be seen as relative and not absolute.

SexWeight kgTotal length mm Tail length mmShoulder height mm 
Males1802 7759751 200
Females1302 4258501 050


Wild lions live about 8-10 years, but captive lions may live 25 or more years.

Geographic range or Distribution Lions once roamed across almost the entire African continent and large parts of Southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia to the southern parts of India. Today, the African lion is found only in sub-Saharan Africa.

Habitat Lions roam the open country of Africa in prides or as nomads. Although they will tolerate a fairly wide spectrum of territorial types, their preferred habitat includes grassy plains, savanna, lightly wooded scrub and dry woodland, but never thick forests or jungles. Although lions are almost exclusively terrestrial, they are good at climbing trees, especially the juveniles.

Social structure The lion is the most diurnal of all cats. They are also the most gregarious cats and spend their ordinary lives in groups, known as prides. Prides vary in size from two to about 12 adult females with their young. A pride consists of related females, sisters, mothers, aunts, and cousins and may have more than 30 members. Cubs and sub-adult females are boosting the size of prides. Although prides may have single adult pride males in attendance, coalitions of two and more adult pride males tend to have a longer tenure in the prides. Born into a pride, a female will usually stay for life, although a large pride may at times temporarily split into smaller groups. Adult females in a pride hunt and eat together, they care for their cubs together and defend their territory aggressively from nomadic intruders and other prides. Often pride females must defend their cubs against groups of males.

Unlike females, large male cubs and sub-adult males (from two to four years old) are not tolerated by pride males and driven from the pride. They form small nomadic groups or coalitions of two to six. These coalition may be brothers, cousins, or unrelated males. Their nomadic existence might come to an end if they eventually succeed in taking over a pride of females and start breeding. The tenure period in a pride as the pride male or the coalition of pride males may last from a couple of months to about two years. Those adult pride males who survive the often bloody combat during a pride takeover, either find other prides or turn into a nomadic existence again for the rest of their lives.

Feeding ecology The females are permanent members and the nucleus of the pride. They do the hunting, often as a team: some will drive the prey towards other females. The middle part of the day is devoted mainly to lying around and sleeping. Lions are very opportunistic and often take the kills of other predators. Lions are also unscrupulous scavengers and will chase other terrestrial and avian predators from edible animal material.

Although lions are carnivorous, they have been observed to consume small quantities of grass; ostensibly as a laxative to purge the digestive tract from ingested hairs that are lodged in the folds (rugae) of the stomach. In the arid regions of Africa (such as the Kalahari desert), lions often consume the fruits of the tsama melon (Citrullus lanatus) and the gemsbok cucumber (Acanthosicyos naudinianus); both plants contain substantial quantities of water in their fruits.

In the Kruger National Park in South Africa, more than 30 animal, avian, and reptile species have been listed as prey. Similarly, elsewhere in Africa the diet of lions consist of a wide variety of prey species. As a consequence of the encroachment of human habitation on the former habitat of African lions, lions increasingly predate on domesticated livestock. People invariable also fall prey to lions.

Reproduction Lions appear not to have a fixed breeding season. Females in the wild appear to have their first oestrus at three and a half years (43 months) of age. Males in the wild are sexually mature at 26 months but only get the opportunity to mate when they are about five years old.

Oestrus is the recurring state in which a female is receptive to sexual activity. A female in oestrus will mate repeatedly about every 20 minutes over a period of four to 14 days with a pride male, sometimes with more than one pride male. If conception does not occur, the female will go into oestrus again after about five weeks. Females become pregnant at about 43 months, thereafter producing a litter about every two years. Females may produce up to the age of 15 years.

After a relatively short gestation period of about 110 days, the lioness temporarily leave her pride to give birth in a secluded thicket or other suitable hide. Litter size may vary from one to seven cubs with birth weights of about 1,1 to 1,37 kg. The birth weights of individual cubs represent about 1% of the body weight of the adult female.

The lioness leaves the small cubs in hiding during the first couple of weeks of their lives while she is hunting and only returns at irregular intervals to suckle them. Lionesses have four (4) teats. As a precautionary measure to prevent the cubs from being located and killed by other predators, the cubs are frequently moved to fresh hides by the lioness. Depending on the availability of prey, the cubs may often be subjected to starvation and severe dehydration.

The cubs that survive this critical early stage of life, are observed for the first time when their mother introduces them to the rest of the pride, and by this time they are already a few weeks old. At this stage, the number of cubs in the litter has been reduced to two to four cubs. By the age of two months, the male and female cubs weigh about 14 and 13 kg respectively. This constitutes a very high growth rate for the cubs that have relied exclusively on mother's milk for nourishment, implying a very high nutrient content and/or a large volume of milk produced per day by the lionesses and consumed by the cubs.

Often, several females give birth at the same time and they share the duties of protecting and communally nursing the cubs. Although nursing may last up to six or eight months, the cubs are taken to kills from as young as three months. At about the age of a year, the cubs will start learning to hunt with the pride. They are still very clumsy at this stage and it takes several years to become reasonably accomplished hunters. The cubs are taken care of by the mothers for a fairly long period. Normally she will not mate again until the cubs are about 18 months to two years old. If the cubs die young for some reason, females may come into oestrus as little as seven days later.

Literature Bothma, J. du P. and Walker, Clive, 1999. Larger Carnivores of the African Savannas. J.L. van Schaik Publishers, Hatfield, Pretoria.
Green, J. Richard K., 1991. Wild cat species of the world. Basset Publications, Plymouth.
Ravi Chellam and Johnsingh, A.J.T., 1993. Management of Asiatic lions in the Gir forest, India. Symposium of the Zoological Society of London 65, 409-424.
Rudnai, Judith A., 1973. The social life of the lion. A study of the behaviour of wild lions Panthera leo massaica [Newmann]) in the Nairobi National Park, Kenya. MTP Medical and Technical Publishing Co Ltd. Lancaster, England.
Schaller, G.B., 1969. Life with the King of Beasts. National Geographic Magazine 135(4), 494-519.
Schaller, G.B., 1972. The Serengeti lion: a study of predator-prey relations. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Skinner, J.D. and Smithers, R.H.N., 1990. The Mammals of the Southern African subregion. University of Pretoria, South Africa.


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