(Leo, or Panthera, leo), large, powerfully built cat of the family Felidae, and the second largest of the big cats (after the tiger). The proverbial "king of beasts," the lion has been, since earliest times, one of the best known of wild animals. It is now found mainly in parts of Africa south of the Sahara. A few hundred lions, constituting an Asiatic race, live under strict protection in the Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat state, India. The preferred habitats of lions are grassy plains and open savanna.

The lion is a well-muscled cat with a long body, short legs, and large head. It varies considerably between the sexes in both size and appearance. A full-grown male is about 1.8-2.1 m long, excluding the 1-metre long tail; stands about 1.2 m high at the shoulder; and weighs170-230 kg. The female, or lioness, is smaller, with a body length of 1.5 m, a shoulder height of 0.9-1 m, and a weight of 120-180 kg. The lion's coat is short and varies in color from buff yellow, orange-brown, or silvery gray to dark brown, with a tuft on the tail tip that is usually darker than the rest of the coat. Lionesses are more consistently tawny or sandy in color. The male's outstanding characteristic is his mane, which varies in different individuals. It may be entirely lacking; 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 throat and chest to join a fringe along the belly. In some lions the mane and fringe are very dark, almost black, and give the animals a majestic appearance.

Lions are unique among cats in that they live in a group, or pride. A pride consists of several generations of lionesses, all of whom are related, their cubs, and one or two adult male lions who defend the pride's territory and mate with the females. The adult males are outsiders who may hold the pride for a few months to several years, depending on their ability to defend it against other outsider males. A pride may have as few as 4 or as many as 37 members, but about 15 is the average size. Each pride has a well-defined territory; where prey is abundant, its area may be as small as 20 square km, but if game is sparse, the territory may be up to 400 square km in area. Male cubs are expelled from the pride at about 3 years of age and become nomads until they are old enough (at age 5) to try and take over another pride. Many adult males remain nomads for life, however. Some female cubs remain within the pride when they attain sexual maturity, but others are forced out and join other prides. The members of a pride typically spend the day in several scattered groups, though these may unite to hunt or to share in a kill.

Lions proclaim their territory by roaring and by scent marking. The lion's well-known roar is generally uttered in the evening before a night's hunting and again before getting up at dawn. Males also proclaim their presence by urinating on bushes, trees, or simply on the ground, leaving pungent scent markings in the process. Defecation and rubbing against bushes leave other scent markings.

Lions prey on a large number of animals ranging in size from gazelles and baboons upward to buffalo and hippopotamuses, but they prefer to hunt such medium- to large-sized hoofed animals as wildebeest, zebra, and impala and other antelopes. Lions readily eat any meat they can find, including carrion and fresh kills that they scavenge from hyenas through the use of force or intimidation. It is the lionesses of a pride who do most of the hunting. When hunting, the cats pay no attention to the wind's direction, which can carry their scent to their prey, and they also tire after running only short distances; a high proportion of their hunts thus end in failure. When hunting, lionesses (and lions) patiently stalk prey using every bit of available cover and then run it down in a short, rapid rush. After leaping on the prey, the lioness lunges at its neck and bites until the animal is strangled. Other members of the pride quickly crowd around to feed on the kill, with males obtaining the most meat in the resulting scuffles and the smaller cubs acquiring little or none. Lionesses sometimes hunt in groups, with members of a pride encircling a herd of prey animals or approaching them from opposite directions and then closing in to try for a kill in the resulting panic.

Lions and lionesses typically gorge themselves on a kill and then rest for several days in its vicinity. After consuming more than 34 kg of meat at a single meal, an adult male can rest for a week before resuming the hunt. If prey is abundant, both sexes typically spend 20 hours a day resting, sleeping, or sitting and only hunt for 2 or 3 hours a day.

Both sexes are polygamous and breed throughout the year, but females are usually restricted to the one or two adult males of a pride for their breeding partners. In captivity lions often breed every year, but in the wild they usually breed no more than once in two years. The gestation period is about 108 days, and the litter size varies from one to six cubs, with two to four on average. The newborn cub is helpless and blind and has a thick, dark-spotted coat, the markings of which usually disappear with maturity. Cubs are able to follow their mothers at around 3 months of age and are weaned by 6 or 7 months. They begin participating in kills by 11 months but probably cannot survive on their own until they are 2 years old. They reach sexual maturity at three or four years of age. There is a high mortality rate among cubs, and wild adults seldom live more than 8 or 10 years, chiefly owing to attacks by humans, other lions, or the effects of kicks and gorings from intended prey animals. In captivity lions may live 25 years or more, however.

During the late Pleistocene Epoch (1,600,000 to 10,000 years ago), lions had an extremely wide geographic distribution and ranged over all of North America and Africa, most of the Balkans, and across Anatolia and the Middle East into India. They disappeared from North America about 10,000 years ago, from the Balkans about 2,000 years ago, and from Palestine during the Crusades. By the late 20th century their numbers had dwindled to a few tens of thousands, and those outside of national parks were rapidly losing their habitat to agriculture. Their future protection in Tanzania's Serengeti and other national parks seemed secure, however, partly because of the animals' tourist appeal.

In captivity, the lion has been induced 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. The cat known as the American, Mexican, or mountain lion is a New World member of the genus Felis (see puma). 

  [- Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004.]


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