The Animal Encyclopedia: Lions

Close up of a lion next to tree.

Trisha M Shears / Wikimedia Commons

Lions (Panthera leo) are the largest of all African cats. They are the second largest cat species worldwide, smaller than only the tiger. Lions range in color from nearly white to tawny yellow, ash brown, ochre, and deep orange-brown. They have a tuft of dark fur at the tip of their tail.

Lions are unique among cats in that they are the only species that forms social groups. All other cat species are solitary hunters. The social groups that lions form are called prides. A pride of lions typically includes about five females and two males and their young.

Lions play-fight as a means of honing their hunting skills. When they play-fight, they don't bear their teeth and the keep their claws retracted so as to not inflict injury on their partner. Play-fighting enables the lions to practice their battle skills which are useful for tackling prey and it also helps to establish relationships among the pride members. It is during play that lions work out which members of the pride are to chase and corner their quarry and which members of the pride are the ones to go in for a kill.

Male and female lions differ in their size and appearance. This difference is referred to as sexual dimorphism. Female lions are smaller than males and have a uniformly colored coat of a tawny brown color. Females also lack a mane. Males have a thick, woolly mane of fur that frames their face and covers their neck.

Quick facts about lions:

  • Lions are carnivores (that is, meat-eaters). Their prey includes zebra, buffalo, wildebeest, impala, rodents, hares, and reptiles.
  • Size and Weight: About 5½-8¼ feet long and 330-550 pounds
  • Habitat: Savannas of Africa and the Gir Forest in northwest India

Lion Reproduction

Lions reproduce sexually. They mate year-round but breeding usually peaks during the rainy season. Females reach sexual maturity at 4 years and males at 5 years. Their gestation lasts between 110 and 119 days. A litter usually consists of between 1 and 6 lion cubs.

Lion Classification

Lions are carnivores, a subgroup of mammals that also includes animals such as bears, dogs, raccoons, mustelids, civets, hyenas, and the aardwolf. Lions' closest living relatives are jaguars, followed by leopards and tigers.

Evolution of Modern Cats

Modern cats first appeared about 10.8 million years ago. Lions, along with jaguars, leopards, tigers, snow leopards and clouded leopards, split off from all other cat lineages early in the evolution of the cat family and today form what is known as the Panthera lineage. Lions shared a common ancestor with jaguars which lived about 810,000 years ago.