KINGDOM: Animalia (Animals)
PHYLUM: Chordata (Possessing a notochord)
CLASS: Mammalia (Mammals)
ORDER: Carnivora (Carnivores)
FAMILY: Felidae (Cats)
SUB-FAMILY: Pantherinae (Big Cats)
GENUS: Panthera (Lions, Jaguars, Leopards, Snow Leopards and Tigers)
SPECIES: Panthera leo (Lion)
Lions live in most of sub-Saharan Africa except in desert and rainforest habitats. Historically, lions could be found from Greece through the Middle East to northern India, but only a very small population remains in India today, and none in the Middle East or Europe.
Lions are large cats with short fur that is generally a yellow-brown colour with white on the underside. Adult male lions have a growth of long hair on the neck called the mane. Cubs have spotted coats. Lions also have retractable claws used for hunting.
Lions prefer savannas, grasslands, dense bush and woodlands for their habitat. These habitats contain large prey and sufficient foliage cover for lions to hunt effectively.
Lions are carnivores (meat-eaters) and they eat large mammals such as antelope, zebra and wildebeest. They have also been known to eat mice, lizards, warthog, tortoise and crocodiles. Lions scavange food from hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs, taking over their kills, as well.
Unlike most other cats, lions are social animals. They live in groups of up to 40 individuals, called prides. These prides are comprised of related females with one or two dominant males. Each pride has its own territory which it will defend from other carnivores. This territory can be as big as 250 square km. Female lions are the hunters and will hunt in packs, which enables them to take down very large prey.
Lions are polygynous (males will have more than one female mate at a time). The first male to reach a female in heat will have priority. When a male takes over a new pride he will kill suckling cubs of defeated males.
After a 3.5 month gestation period, two or three cubs are born. Mothers will hide their cubs for about 8 weeks, after which they will be introduced to the pride. Cubs are weaned between 7-10 months, but will only reach independence at about two years.
Males are ejected from their natal pride at about 2.5 years of age, either when a new male takes over, or when their father begins seeing them as competiton. These young males will lead nomadic lives for a few years, after which they will start forming coalitions to take over their own pride. Females will stay in their natal pride. Female lions do not seem to have a hierarcy and will even suckle each other’s cubs. Lions can live up to about 15 years.
Lions don’t have any natural predators, but cubs that are not well hidden when their mother goes hunting may be susceptible to hyenas and other predators. However, infanticide is a bigger threat to cubs.
Threats faced by lions include hunting, poaching, habitat loss and disease (such as canine distemper). The lion population has been almost cut in half in the last two decades, due to trophy hunting, retaliation killings and habitat loss.
Did you know?
- Lions spend between 16 and 20 hours a day resting and sleeping
- Both male and female lions roar!
- Lions and tigers are so closely related that if you shaved them you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart
- Lions can climb trees
- Lions can go four or five days without water!