The Legend of the Black Lion

Black lion
 Image originated on DeviantArt.com ©2012 ~PAulie-SVK

Back in 2012, an image of a black lion—or what appeared to be one—went viral online. But like other Internet sensations, people soon began to question whether black lions really exist. Unlike other urban legends, the truth behind this story is fairly straightforward.

Lion Basics

Lions were once found in Africa, Asia, and southern Europe, but centuries of hunting and human encroachment have reduced wild populations to sub-Saharan Africa and a small portion of India.

Lions may weigh anywhere from 275 to 550 pounds and can run as fast as 35 mph. Among the many big cats of the world, only the Siberian tiger is larger than the lion.

Lions are social mammals that live in groups called prides. They usually consist of one male and between five and 15 females. Male lions have a large mane of fur that circles their head and shoulders and a tuft of fur at the end of their tails. Male and female lions are typically golden to tawny in color, though a male's mane may range in color from red to dark brown.

According to the Global White Lion Protection Trust, white lions are a genetic anomaly unique to the Timbavati region of South Africa. They are considered "technically extinct" in the wild due to over-hunting and efforts are underway to preserve the few that still remain.

Do Black Lions Exist?

Beautiful as a black lion may appear to be, such a creature doesn't actually exist.

The picture that went viral is an admitted hoax, created by manipulating the color palette of an image of a white lion (which does exist) photographed at the Cango Wildlife Ranch in Oudtshoorn, South Africa. Voila, all-black lion. You can find more examples of doctored lion photos at zoologist Karl Shuker's blog.

Melanism is a rare congenital condition involving an abnormal increase in the amount of dark pigment (melanin) naturally present in a given organism. Most life forms, including microorganisms, have some amount of melanin present in their bodies. An abnormal decrease in the amount of melanin normally present in an organism results in the opposite condition, albinism.

Among the mammals in which melanism has been observed are squirrels, wolves, leopards, and jaguars. An interesting bit of related trivia is that the term "black panther" doesn't refer to a distinct species of big cat as many people assume, but rather to melanistic leopards in Asia and Africa and panthers in Central and South America.

Although an all-black or melanistic lion could theoretically exist, there have been no documented sightings of such an animal. Anecdotal reports can be found, however. One of the best is in naturalist George Adamson's 1987 book, "My Pride and Joy." In that book, Adamson writes of an "almost entirely black" specimen spotted in Tanzania.

Sarah Hartwell of MessyBeast.com, an enthusiast blog about big cats, reports that in 2008 several large black lions were supposedly seen roaming the streets at night in Matsulu township near Mpumalanga, South Africa, but government officials found no evidence to support the rumors and concluded that residents probably mistook lions with dark brown markings for black ones in the darkness.

More on Fake Images

People have been creating and sharing doctored images since photography was first invented in the 1800s. The rise of digital photography and photo editing software in the 1990s, along with the explosive spread of the Internet, has only made creating viral sensations easier. In fact, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City devoted a major exhibition to the "art" of the faked image in 2012.

The picture of the black lion that went viral that same year is just one example of Internet animal sensations. An image purportedly documenting a pig-nosed fish that "tastes like bacon" has circulated since 2013. And yet another viral image (or rather, set of images) supposedly documented a cobra with anywhere from three to seven heads. A snake the size of a semi-truck supposedly captured and killed in the Red Sea appears in another set of viral images.

All of these "true" images are hoaxes.