African Lion Facts: Habitat, Diet, Behavior

The King of the Jungle Actually Lives in the Savanna

Male African lion.
Male African lion. Benoit BACOU / Getty Images

Throughout history, the African lion (Panthera leo) has represented courage and strength. The cat is easily recognized both by its roar and the male's mane. Lions, which live in groups called prides, are the most social cats. The size of a pride depends on food availability, but a typical group includes three males, a dozen females, and their cubs.

Fast Facts: African Lion

  • Common Name: Lion
  • Scientific Name: Panthera leo
  • Distinguishing Features: Large, muscular buff to brown cats with rounded heads. Males are larger than females and have prominent manes and tufted tails.
  • Size: Head and body: 4.5 to 6.5 ft; Tail: 26 to 40 in
  • Weight: 265 to 420 lbs
  • Group Name: Pride
  • Diet: Carnivorous
  • Average Lifespan: 10 to 14 years
  • Habitat: Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable (population decreasing)
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Felidae
  • Fun Fact: Lions are the only cats that display sexual dimorphism (males and females have different physical appearances).

Appearance

The lion is the only cat exhibiting sexual dimorphism, which means that male and females lions look different from each other. Males are larger than females (lionesses). A lion's body ranges in length from 4.5 to 6.5 feet, with a 26 to 40 inch tail. Weight runs between 265 to 420 pounds.

Lion cubs have dark spots on their coat when they are born, which fade until only faint belly spots remain in adulthood. Adult lions range in color from buff to gray to various shades of brown. Both males and females are powerful, muscular cats with rounded heads and ears. Only adult male lions display a brown, rust, or black mane, which extends down the neck and chest. Only males have dark tail tufts, which conceal tail bone spurs in some specimens.

White lions occur rarely in the wild. The white coat is caused by a double recessive allele. White lions are not albino animals. They have normal-colored skin and eyes.

The lion is the only cat with different appearances for males and females.
The lion is the only cat with different appearances for males and females. claudialothering / Getty Images

Habitat

The lion may be called the "king of the jungle," but it's actually absent from rainforests. Instead, this cat prefers the grassy plains, savannas, and scrubland of sub-Saharan Africa. The Asiatic lion lives in Gir Forest National Park in India, but its habitat only includes the savanna and scrub forest areas.

Diet and Predators

Lions are hypercarnivores, which means their diet consists of more that 70% meat. African lions prefer to hunt large ungulates, including zebra, African buffalo, gemsbok, giraffe, and wildebeest. They avoid very large (elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus) and very small (hare, monkey, hyrax, dik-dik) prey, but will take domestic livestock. A single lion can take down prey twice its size. In prides, lionesses hunt cooperatively, stalking from more than one direction to capture fleeing animals. Lions kill either by strangling their prey or by enclosing its mouth and nostrils to suffocate it. Usually, prey is consumed at the hunting site. Lions often lose their kills to hyenas and sometimes to crocodiles.

While the lion is an apex predator, it falls prey to humans. Cubs are often killed by hyenas, wild dogs, and leopards.

Reproduction

Lion cubs are spotted.
Lion cubs are spotted. Image captured by Joanne Hedger / Getty Images

Lions are sexually mature at about three years of age, although males tend to be four or five years old before winning a challenge and joining a pride. When a new male takes over a pride, he usually kills the youngest generation of cubs and evicts the adolescents. Lionesses are polyestrous, which means they can mate at any time of year. They go into heat either when their cubs are weaned or when they are all killed.

As with other cats, the male lion's penis has backward-pointing spines that stimulate the lioness to ovulate during mating. After a gestation period of about 110 days, the female gives birth to one to four cubs. In some prides, the female gives birth to her cubs in a secluded den and hunts alone until the cubs are six to eight weeks of age. In other prides, one lioness cares for all the cubs while the others go hunting. Females fiercely defend cubs within their pride. Males tolerate their cubs, but don't always defend them.

About 80% of cubs die, but those that survive to adulthood may live to be 10 to 14 years of age. Most adult lions are killed by humans or other lions, although some succumb to injuries sustained while hunting.

Behavior

When lions and other cats rub heads, they exchange scent markers.
When lions and other cats rub heads, they exchange scent markers. Verónica Paradinas Duro / Getty Images

Lions sleep for 16 to 20 hours a day. They most often hunt at dawn or dusk, but can adapt to their prey to change their schedule. They communicate using vocalizations, head rubbing, licking, facial expressions, chemical marking, and visual marking. Lions are known for their fierce roar, but may also growl, meow, snarl, and purr.

Conservation Status

The lion is listed as "vulnerable" on the IUCN Red List. The wild population decreased in numbers approximately 43% from 1993 to 2014. The 2014 census estimated about 7500 wild lions remained, but the numbers have continued to decline since that time.

Although lions can tolerate a wide range of habitats, they are threatened because people continue to kill them and because of prey depletion. Humans kill lions to protect livestock, out of fear of human endangerment, and for illegal trade. Prey are threatened by increased commercialization of bushmeat and habitat loss. In some areas, trophy hunting has helped preserve lion populations, while it has contributed to the species' decline in other regions.

African Lion Versus Asiatic Lion

Male Asiatic lions have smaller manes than African lions.
Male Asiatic lions have smaller manes than African lions. World of nature / Getty Images

Recent phylogenetic studies indicate that lions shouldn't really be categorized as "African" and "Asian." However, cats living in the two regions do display different appearances and behaviors. From a genetic standpoint, the main difference is that African lions have one infraorbital foramen (hole in the skull for nerves and blood vessels to the eyes), while Asian lions have a bifurcated infraorbital foramen. African lions are larger cats, with thicker and longer manes and shorter tail tufts than Asian lions. An Asiatic lion has a longitudinal fold of skin along its belly that is lacking in African lions. Pride composition differs between the two types of lions, too. This most likely results from the fact that the lions are different sizes and hunt different types of prey.

Lion Hybrids

Liger (Panthera leo Panthera tigris) in zoo, Siberia, Russia
Liger (Panthera leo Panthera tigris) in zoo, Siberia, Russia. Denis Ukhov / Getty Images

Lions are closely related to tigers, snow leopards, jaguars, and leopards. They can interbreed with other species to create hybrids cats:

  • Liger: Cross between a male lion and a tigress. Ligers are larger than lions or tigers. Male ligers are sterile, but many female ligers are fertile.
  • Tigon or Tiglon: Cross between a lioness and a male tiger. Tigons are typically smaller than either parent.
  • Leopon: Cross between a lioness and a male leopard. The head resembles a lion's, while the body is that of a leopard.

Because of the focus on conserving genes from lions, tigers, and leopards, hybridization is discouraged. Hybrids are primarily seen in private menageries.

Sources

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  • Macdonald, David (1984). The Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: Facts on File. p. 31. ISBN 0-87196-871-1.
  • Makacha, S.; Schaller, G. B. (1962). "Observations on lions in the Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania". African Journal of Ecology. 7 (1): 99–103. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2028.1969.tb01198.x
  • Wozencraft, W.C. (2005). "Panthera leo". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 546. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0.