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Conservation status: Vulnerable

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Panthera
Species: P. leo
Panthera leo
( Linnaeus, 1758)
Comparative view of the human and lion frames, c1860.
Comparative view of the human and lion frames, c1860.

The Lion (Panthera leo) is a mammal of the family Felidae. It is the largest and most powerful living felid with the exception of the tiger, and the liger. The male lion, easily recognized by his mane, may weigh up to 250 kg (550 lb) Females are much smaller, weighing up to 150 kg (330 lb). In the wild lions live for around 10–14 years, while in captivity they can live over 20. Lions are predatory carnivores who live in family groups, called prides. The family consists of related females, their cubs of both sexes, and one or more unrelated males who mate with the adult females. Although it was once thought that females did most of the hunting in the pride, it is now known that males contribute much more to hunting than the amount for which they had been previously given credit. Both males and females will defend the pride against outside 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. When or if a male coalition takes over a pride and ousts the previous coalition, the conquerors often kill any cubs even if they did father them.The last remnant of the Asiatic Lion (subspecies Panthera leo persica), which in historical times ranged from Turkey to India through Iran (Persia), lives in the Gir Forest of northwestern India. About 300 lions live in a 1412 km² (558 square miles) sanctuary in the state of Gujarat.Lions had become extinct in Greece, their last European outpost, by 100 AD. Other extinct subspecies are the Cape Lion, the European Cave Lion (subspecies Panthera leo spelaea) which coexisted with humans throughout the last Ice Age, and the American lion (subspecies Panthera leo atrox), a close relative of the European cave lion (not to be confused with the mountain lion or puma).Lions are recurring symbols in the coat of arms of royalty and chivalry, particularly in the UK, where the lion is also a national symbol of the British people. Lions appear in the art of China, even though lions have never lived in China. No animal has been given more attention in art and literature. C.A.W. Guggisberg, in his book Simba, says the lion is referred to 130 times in the Bible, for example in 1 Peter 5:8 where the Devil is compared to a roaring lion: `seeking someone to devour`.The lion can also be found in stone age cave paintings.Although they are not often heard of due to their rarity, white lions do exist, in Timbavati, South Africa. There is a recessive gene in white lions that gives them their unusual colour (also causing white tigers, many white tigers with this gene are bred for zoos and animal shows). A white lion has a disadvantage when it comes to hunting; their white colour can give away their hiding place.

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Lion Subspecies
Attacks on humans
Cross-breeding with tigers
Morphology of the lion skull
Lions in culture

Lion Subspecies - Contents

The main differences between lion subspecies are location, size and mane appearance, however some of the forms listed below are debatable. Genetic evidence suggests that all modern lions derived from one common ancestor only ca. 55,000 years ago, therefore most sub-saharan lions could be considered a single subspecies. Notable exceptions would be the cape lion (P. l. melanochaita) and the kalahari lion (P. l. Verneyi).
 Asiatic Lioness Panthera leo persica, name MOTI, born in Helsinki Zoo (Finland) October 1994, arrived Bristol Zoo (England) January 1996
Asiatic Lioness Panthera leo persica, name MOTI, born in Helsinki Zoo (Finland) October 1994, arrived Bristol Zoo (England) January 1996
  • Panthera leo azandica - North East Congo lion.
  • Panthera leo bleyenberghi - Katanga lion.
  • Panthera leo europaea - European lion. Extinct around 100AD due to hunting and competition from feral dogs. From France to the Balkans.
  • Panthera leo hollisteri - Congo lion.
  • Panthera leo krugeri - South African lion.
  • Panthera leo leo - Barbary lion; extinct in the wild. This was the largest of the lion subspecies, which ranged from Morocco to Egypt. The last wild Barbary lion was killed in Morocco in 1922 due to excessive hunting. Barbary lions were kept by Roman emperors, who ordered the capture of literally thousands of individuals to fight in the gladiator arenas. Roman notables, including Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar, often ordered the mass slaughter of Barbary lions - up to 400 at a time. [1]
  • Panthera leo massaicus - Massai lion.
  • Panthera leo melanochaita - Cape lion; extinct in 1860.
  • Panthera leo nubica - East African lion.
  • Panthera leo persica - Asiatic lion. 200 currently exist in the Gir Forest of India. Once widespread from Turkey, across the Middle East, to India and Bangladesh, but large prides and daylight activity made it easier to poach than tigers or leopards.
  • Panthera leo roosevelti - Abyssinian lion.
  • Panthera leo senegalensis - West African lion, or Senegal lion.
  • Panthera leo somaliensis - Somali lion.
  • Panthera leo verneyi - Kalahari lion. Distinct behaviour and anatomy has been observed in this subspecies.

Attacks on humans - Contents

While a hungry lion will probably attack a human that passes near, some (usually male) lions seem to seek out human prey. Some of the more publicized cases include the Tsavo man-eaters and the Mfuwe man-eater. In both cases the hunters who slew the lions wrote books detailing the lions' "careers" as man-eaters. In folklore, man-eating lions are sometimes considered demons.The Mfuwe and Tsavo incidents did bear some similarities. The lions in both the incidents were all larger than normal, lacked manes and seemed to suffer from tooth decay. Some have speculated that they might belong to an unclassified species of lion, or that they may have been sick and couldn't have easily caught prey.There have also been recorded attacks on humans by lions in captivity.

Cross-breeding with tigers - Contents

Lions have also been known to breed with their close counterparts, tigers (most often Amur), while in captivity to create interesting mixes. These two new breeds are called ligers and tigons.The liger originates from mating a male lion and a tigress. Because the lion passes on a growth-promoting gene, but the corresponding growth-inhibiting gene from the female lion is not present, ligers are larger than either parent. It is said that ligers do not stop growing and will grow constantly through their lifespan, until their bodies cannot sustain their huge size any longer, reaching up to half a tonne. Ligers share some qualities of both their parents (spots and stripes) however they enjoy swimming, a purely tiger activity, and they are always a sandy colour like the lion. Male ligers are sterile, but female ligers are often fertile.The tigon is a cross between the lioness and the male tiger. Because the male tiger does not pass on a growth-promoting gene and the lioness passes on a growth inhibiting gene, tigons are often relatively small, only weighing up to 150 kilograms (350 lb), which is about 20% smaller than lions. They can best be described as "housecat-like" in appearance, although with round ears. Like male ligers, male tigons are sterile, and they all have both spots and stripes, with yellow eyes. Tigons are not as common as ligers because they are not as visually impressive, thus they do not draw as much attention from audiences. Tigons are also more difficult to produce as male tigers are less attracted to lionesses because of their smaller size and are thought to have difficulty with recognizing lioness breeding cues.Female ligers and female tigons are fertile and can produce offspring if mated to either a pure-bred lion or a pure-bred tiger.
Monumental Lion guarding Britannia Bridge, Wales
Monumental Lion guarding Britannia Bridge, Wales

Morphology of the lion skull - Contents

View 3D animations of juvenile and adult lion skulls -- both inside and out -- at

Lions in culture - Contents

  • Although lions are not native to China, the Chinese people believe that Lions protect humans from evil spirits, hence the Chinese New Year Lion Dance to scare away demons and ghosts.
  • The lion is adopted by the British people as their mascot together with the bulldog. It is used like the FIFA World Cup mascot held in England in the year 1966 and the European Football Championships in 1996. The lion again became mascot with Goleo VI with your "pal" a talking football called "Pillie" for FIFA World Cup in 2006. A British group: The Lighting Seeds inspired in the England football team emblem written and interpreted the song Three Lions which is the team`s nickname.
  • The lion appears on the National Flag and the Coat of Arms of Sri Lanka. It is meant to symbolise the Sinhala people (Sinhalese Singha = Lion"). Local folklore tells of Prince Vijaya, the first of the Sinhalese kings, as being the son of Sinhabahu, who was fathered by a lion. See History of Sri Lanka

Lions in art
Lions 1980from sketchbookby Frans Koppelaar
Lions 1980
from sketchbook
by Frans Koppelaar
Lions have been widely used in sculpture and statuary to provide a sense of majesty and awe, especially on public buildings, including:
  • The Great Sphinx of Giza
  • Nelson's column in London's Trafalgar Square.
  • The entrance to the Britannia Bridge crossing of the Menai Strait, Wales.
  • Patience and Fortitude, the large stone lions outside the main branch of the New York Public Library, also the mascots of the New York and Brooklyn Public Library system.
  • Chinese lions are frequently used in sculpture in traditional Chinese architecture. For instance, in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, two lion statues are seen in almost every door entrance.
  • The entrance to Sigiriya, the Lion-Rock of Sri Lanka was through the Lion Gate, the mouth of a stone Lion. The paws of the lion can still be seen today. It is one of the 7 world heritage sites in Sri Lanka.
  • The Dying Lioness is a relief panel from 650 BCE, Nineveh (modern day Iraq) depicting a half-paralyzed lioness pierced with arrows. This piece currently resides in the British Museum.

Lions in heraldry
The Lion of Judah on the emblem of Jerusalem
The Lion of Judah on the emblem of Jerusalem
The lion is a common image in heraldry, traditionally symbolizing bravery, valor and strength.The following positions of heraldic lions are recognized: rampant, guardant, reguardant, passant, statant, couchant, salient, sejant, dormant.

Lions in media
  • Tezuka Osamu made an anime called The White Lion about a little lion cub who grew up without parents and had to rely on his friends to survive from hunters and other prey.
  • In 1994, Disney made a hugely successful animated feature film called The Lion King, during the height of Disney animation in the mid 90's.

Lion as place names
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