Lion Anatomy and Appearance
Lions have a short coat of tawny or golden fur with a long tail that has a tuft of longer fur at the end. The markings on their coats are much fainter than the bold stripes and spots displayed on other felines which helps these large carnivores in going unseen when stalking prey in the long grasses. Lions have strong and powerful lion jaws that contain 30 teeth in total which includes four fang-like canines and four carnassial teeth that are perfectly designed for slicing through flesh.
The lion is one of the largest cats in the world with males being taller and heavier than females and displaying a mane of long hair around their faces (in fact, it is the only case in the feline world where males and females actually look different). Thought to be connected with testosterone levels, the mane of the male lion ranges from blonde to red, brown, and black in color and covers their head, neck, and chest.
Several big cat species have been observed in the wild with color mutations, such as the white tiger or black panther. Likewise, there is an uncommon color mutation of lions that leaves their coat extremely pale.
Unlike white tigers which are albino – that is, lacking in color pigments in their coat – the coat of white lions is caused by recessive traits. The uncommon nature of white lions led to them being captured and moved into captivity in the second half of the 20th century.
Lion Distribution and Habitat
Historically, Lions would have been found throughout much of Africa and even in parts of Europe and Asia as well. Today, however, they have been pushed into more isolated pockets of their once vast natural range with the remaining African Lion population now only found in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. There is also still a small population of Asiatic Lions found inhabiting a remote part of the Gir Forest in India.
Despite their dwindling numbers, Lions are actually incredibly adaptable animals that can and will inhabit very dry climates as they get most of the moisture they need from their food. They prefer areas of open woodland, scrub, and long grasslands where there is not only plenty over cover but also a wide variety of prey. They are only not found in areas of rainforest or far into deserts.
Lion Population — How Many White Lions Are Left?
Like other big cat species, the lion is under threat from habitat loss and hunting. Between 1993 and 2014, the population of lions decreased by 42%. The IUCN’s last assessment places the adult population between 23,000 to 39,000 mature individuals. Today, lions as a species are listed as “Vulnerable,” a step above being declared “Endangered.”
While the Africa lion’s population likely numbers over 20,000, Asiatic lion populations are estimated to number just 600 individuals. Asiatic lions are limited to just a single wildlife sanctuary in India that measures just 545 square miles (1,400 sq. km). Further growth in the population of Asiatic lions will rely on reintroduction into new habitats in India.
Extinct lion species and subpopulations
Scientists believe that 10,000 years ago lions were the most widespread mammal outside of humans. However, today their range is a fraction of its historical size. This comes from the extinction of two unique lion species near the end of the last ice age and habitat loss that has reduced the range of lions.
The Barbary lion used to live across the North Coast of Africa, with a range that stretched from Egypt to Morocco. Until recently, it was believed to be a distinct subspecies of lion, but research now shows it’s genetically similar to Asiatic lions.
The Barbary lion was largely hunted to extinction in the 19th century. The last documented sighting was in Algeria’s Atlas Mountains in 1942 (although, skins were found on illegal markets into the 1980s, suggesting the Barbary lions may have survived longer), leaving the lion regionally extinct in North Africa. Today, Barbary lions aren’t recognized as unique subspecies, but for much of the 20th century, they were believed to be.
Cave lion (Panther Leo spelean)
The Cave lion was a species of lion that stretched across Eurasia and into Alaska and went extinct with the collapse of the mammoth steppe about 12,000 years ago. The species lived across all of continental Europe and many archeological drawings of lions from that area depict cave lions. The species was larger than today’s surviving lions. In recent years, a number of frozen cave lion cubs have been discovered in Russia’s permafrost.
American lion (Panthera leo atrox)
Another lion species that disappeared roughly 12,000 years ago during a period of global climate change, the America lion’s ranged stretched across most of the modern-day United States and Mexico. The American lion is notable for being the largest lion species. Its habitat was similar to today’s African lion, with it hunting across large grasslands on large mammals like bison, deer, and even mammoths.
Lion Behaviour and Lifestyle
Lions are unique among cats as they live together in strong social groups. A pride is made up of 5-15 related females and their cubs along with a generally single male (small groups of 2 or 3 though are not uncommon). Male Lions patrol a territory of around 100m² marking trees and rocks with urine and roaring to warn off intruders. Although male Lions can defend their pride to great effect, their position in the pride is constantly under threat from other males who try to take over their patch and if successful, they will kill any cubs that were sired by the previous male. Despite their enormous size, male Lions actually do hardly any of the hunting as they are often slower and more easily seen than their female counterparts. The Lionesses in the pride hunt together meaning that they are not only more successful on their trips, but they are also able to catch and kill animals that are both faster than them and much bigger.
Lion Reproduction, Cubs, and Lifespan
Both male and female lions are able to reproduce between the ages of two and three but despite this, they will often not breed until the pride has been firmly established. After a gestation period that lasts for nearly four months, female lions give birth to between one and six cubs that are born blind and are incredibly vulnerable in their new surroundings. The fur of lion cubs is covered in darker spots that help to camouflage them into their den to protect them whilst the adults have gone out to hunt.
Sadly, however, less than half of cubs make it to be a year old and four out of five have died by the time they are two, generally either from animal attacks or starvation. Remarkably though, the female lions in the pride will have their cubs at around the same time and will help to suckle and care for the cubs of other females. Lion cubs suckle on milk until they are about six months old and although they won’t begin actively hunting until they are about a year old, lion cubs start to eat meat after 12 weeks or so.
Like most big cats, lions live about 10 to 15 years. In captivity, lions have lived quite a bit longer than in the wild. In 2016, the Philadelphia Zoo was had to euthanize a 25-year old female lion after it began suffering from limited mobility.