In the wild, lions live for approximately 10–14 years, while
in captivity they can live over 20 years. Today lions are found
only in tropical climates, but during the Ice age, they
penetrated far north (even to Bering land bridge). They
typically range across savanna and grassland, although they may
take to bush and forest. It is an apex and keystone predator.
Unusually for a cat, lions hunt together. Groups of female lions
typically bring down prey, mostly large ungulates. The lion
pride consists of related females and offspring and a small
number of resident males. Lions are territorial and the pride,
though not strictly hierarchical, is dominated by an adult male
or coalition of males.
The male lion is highly distinctive and usually instantly recognized by its mane. The lion, particularly the face of the male, is one of the most widely recognized animal symbols in human culture. It has been extensively depicted on sculptures, in paintings, on national flags and in films.
The Lion's name, similar in many languages, derives from the Latin leo, and before that the Ancient Greek leōn/λεων. The Hebrew word lavi (לָבִיא) may also be related, as well as the Ancient Egyptian rw. It was one of the many species originally described, as Felis leo, by Linnaeus in his 18th century work, Systema Naturae.
The generic component of its scientific designation, Panthera leo, is often presumed to derive from Greek pan- ("all") and ther ("beast"), but this may be a folk etymology. Although it came into English through the classical languages, panthera is probably of East Asian origin, meaning "the yellowish animal," or "whitish-yellow".
The lion is a large and muscular feline with a compact build. With short, powerful legs, a strong jaw, and long canine teeth, the lion can bring down and kill large prey. Lion coloration varies from light buff to yellowish, reddish or dark ochraceous brown. The color of the manes varies from blond to black. The under parts are generally lighter and the tail tuft is black.
Average listed weights for the male lion are between 150–225 kg (330–500 lb), and 120–150 kg (260–330 lb) for females. Nowell and Jackson report average weights of 181 kg for males and 126 kg for females. Head and body length is 170–250 cm (5 ft 7 in–8 ft 2 in) in males and 140–175 cm (4 ft 7 in–5 ft 9 in) in females; shoulder height is about 123 cm (4 ft) in males and 100 cm (3 ft 3 in) in females. The tail length is 70–100 cm (2 ft 3 in–3 ft 3 in). The tail ends in a hairy tuft. The tuft conceals a spine, approximately 5 mm long, formed of the final sections of tail bone fused together. The lion is the only felid to have tuffed tail and the function of the tuft and spine are unknown. In the wild, lions live up to 16 years of age, while in captivity they can live ten years longer.
The mane of the male lion, unique amongst cats, is one of the most distinct characteristics of the species. The presence, absence, color, and size of the mane is associated with sexual maturity, climate and testosterone production. Research in Tanzania suggests mane darkness correlates to nutrition and testosterone, and that mane length signals fighting success in male-male relationships; darker-maned individuals may have longer reproductive lives and higher offspring survival, although they suffer in the hottest months of the year. It is possible that lionesses more actively solicit mating with heavily maned lions in prides led by a coalition of 2 or 3 males.
Maneless lions have been reported in Senegal and Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, and the original male white lion from Timbavati was also maneless. Castrated lions have minimal manes. Manelessness is also found in inbred lion populations; inbreeding also results in poor fertility.
Scientists once believed that the distinct status of some subspecies could be justified by morphology, including the size of the mane. Morphology was used to identify subspecies such as the Barbary lion and Cape Lion. Research has suggested, however, that various extrinsic factors influence the color and size of a lion's mane, such as the ambient temperature. The cooler ambient temperature in European and North American zoos, for example, can result in a heavy mane. Thus the mane is an inappropriate marker for identifying subspecies.
Female lions usually hunt at night or dawn and in packs. Their prey consists mainly of larger mammals, with a preference for wildebeests, impalas, zebras, buffalos, giraffes, and warthogs. Notable exceptions to a lions usual diet include buffalo bulls in their prime and very large, fully grown male giraffes. Many other species are hunted based on availability, mainly ungulates of a weight between 50 and 300 kg, like kudu, hartebeest, gemsbok and eland in Africa or nilgai, wild boars and several deer species in India. Occasionally they take relatively small species like Thomson's gazelles or springboks. Very large species such as the hippopotamus, the rhinoceros and the elephant are generally avoided due to the danger they present to lions or the effort required to capture them. In some areas, lions specialize on rather atypical prey-species; this is the case at the Savuti river, where they constantly prey on young elephants. It is reported that the lions, driven by extreme hunger, started taking down baby elephants, then moved on to adolescents and occasionally fully grown adults. Lions will even kill other predators such as leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and wild dogs. An adult female lion requires about 5 kg (11 lb) of meat per day, a male about 7 kg (15.4 lb).
A lion is seen here baring its teeth. While these teeth are sharp, prey is usually ultimately killed by means of strangulation. Young lions first attempt to hunt at around three months of age, though generally not effectively until they are two years old. Lions can reach speeds of 50 mph, though only for short bursts, so they have to be quite nearby their prey before starting the attack. They sneak up to the victim until they reach a distance of about 30 m (98 feet) or less. Usually several lions work together and encircle the herd from different points. The attack is short and powerful, and the lion tries to catch the victim with a fast rush and some final leaps. The prey is usually killed by strangulation.
Because lions hunt in open spaces, where they are easily seen by their prey, cooperating hunting increases the likelihood of a successful hunt, especially of larger species. Teamwork also enables them to defend their prey more easily against other large predators like hyenas, which can be attracted by vultures over kilometers in open savannas. Lionesses do most of the hunting; males attached to prides do not usually participate, except in the case of large animals such as buffalo. In group hunts, each lioness has a favored position in the group, either stalking prey on the "wing" then attacking, or moving a smaller distance in the centre of the group and capturing prey in flight from other lionesses.
Lions do not mate at any specific time of year, and the females
are polyestrous. Like other cats, the male lion's penis has
spines which point backwards. Upon withdrawal of the penis, the
spines rake the walls of the female's vagina, which may cause
ovulation. Furthermore, cats are superfecund; that is, a female
may mate with more than one male when she is in heat, meaning
different cubs in a litter may have different fathers. During a
mating bout, which could last several days, the couple
frequently copulate twenty to forty times a day and are likely
to forgo hunting. In captivity, lions reproduce very well.
The average gestation period is around 110 days, and the female gives birth to a litter of one to four cubs. The females in a pride will synchronize their reproductive cycles so that they cooperate in the raising and suckling of the young, who suckle indiscriminately from any or all of the nursing females in the pride. Cubs are weaned after six to seven months. In the wild, competition for food is fierce, and as many as 80% of the cubs will die before the age of two.
When one or more new males take over a pride and oust the previous master(s), the conquerors often kill any remaining cubs. This is explained by the fact that the females would not become fertile and receptive until the cubs grow up or die. The male lions reach maturity at about 3 years of age and are capable of taking over another pride at 4–5 years old. They begin to age, and thus weaken, at around 8. This leaves a short window for their own offspring to be born and mature—the fathers have to procreate as soon as they take over the pride. The lioness will often attempt to defend her cubs fiercely from a usurping male, but such actions are rarely successful, as he usually kills all the previous top male's cubs that are less than two years old and the female is much lighter and has less strength than the male. However, success is more likely when a group of 3 or 4 mothers within the pride join forces against one male.
One scientific study reports that both males and females may interact homosexually. Male lions pair-bond for a number of days and initiate homosexual activity with affectionate nuzzling and caressing, leading to mounting and thrusting. A study found that about 8% of mountings have been observed to occur with other males, while female pairings are held to be fairly common in captivity but have not been observed in the wild.
Lions are predatory carnivores who manifest two types of social organization. Some are residents, living in groups, called prides. The pride consists of related females, their cubs of both sexes, and a group of one to four males known as a coalition who mate with the adult females. Others are nomads, ranging widely, either singularly or in pairs.
Being smaller and lighter than males, lionesses are more agile and faster and do the pride's hunting, while the stronger males patrol the territory and protect the pride, for which they take the "lion's share" of the females' prey. When resting, lions seem to enjoy good fellowship with lots of touching, head rubbing, licking and purring. But when it comes to food, each lion looks out for itself. Squabbling and fighting are common, with adult males usually eating first, followed by the females and then the cubs.
Why sociality—the most pronounced in any cat species—has developed in lions is the subject of much debate. Increased hunting success appears an obvious reason, but this is less than sure upon examination: coordinated hunting does allow for more successful predation, but also ensures that non-hunting "cheaters" reduce per capita caloric intake. Other benefits include possible kin selection (better to share food with a related lion than with a stranger), protection of the young, maintenance of territory, and individual insurance against injury and hunger.
Both males and females will defend the pride against intruders. Some individual lions consistently lead the defense against intruders, while others lag behind. These “laggards” are not punished by leaders. Possibly laggards provide other services to the group so that leaders forgive them. An alternative hypothesis is that there is some reward associated with being a leader who fends off intruders.
Typically, males will not tolerate outside males, and females will not tolerate outside females. Males are expelled from the pride or leave on their own when they reach maturity.
Lions spend a lot of their time resting. They are inactive for about 20 hours per day.
This Lion Page is Copyright The Animal Web Guide © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub