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Panthera leo

(African lion)


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Interesting Facts

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Common Names

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Click on the language to view common names.

Common Names in Dutch:


Common Names in English:

African lion, Barbary Lion, Lion

Common Names in Finnish:


Common Names in French:

Lion d'afrique, Lion de Barbarie ou de l'Atlas

Common Names in German:


Common Names in Russian:

Кошки, Лев

Common Names in Spanish:

Le?n, León


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Physical Description

Species Panthera leo

Male lions weigh between 330 and 550 pounds and stand about about 48 inches tall at the shoulder . They measure up to 98 inches in length , not including the tail, which measures an additional 35 to 41 inches. Female lions are smaller, weighing between 265 and 400 pounds. They stand about about 42 inches tall and measure less than 69 inches in length, with a slightly shorter tail. Lions have massive shoulders and strong forelimbs, long, sharp claws , and short, powerful jaws . Adult lions have fur that varies in color from light tan to reddish brown. There is a small clump of hair at the end of the tail that is darker than the other fur. Only male lions grow a mane around the shoulders, which grows darker and fuller as the animal ages.


Rich grasslands of East Africa to sands of Kalahari Desert, South Sahara to South Africa, excluding the Congo rain forest . They avoid dense forests because prey is scarce. Competition for Africa's grasslands by humans has drastically reduced the lions' range .

Typically found at an altitude of 1 to 2,033 meters (3 to 6,670 feet).[1]

Ecology: The Lion has a broad habitat tolerance, absent only from tropical rainforest and the interior of the Sahara desert (Nowell and Jackson 1996). There are records of Lion to elevations of more than 4,000 m in the Bale Mountains and on Kilimanjaro (West and Packer in press ). Although Lions drink regularly when water is available, they are capable of obtaining their moisture requirements from prey and even plants (such as the tsama melon in the Kalahari desert), and thus can survive in very arid environments. Medium- to large-sized ungulates (including antelopes, zebra and wildebeest) are the bulk of their prey, but Lions will take almost any animal, from rodents to a rhino. They also scavenge, displacing other predators (such as the Spotted Hyaena) from their kills. Lions are the most social of the cats, with related females remaining together in prides, and related and unrelated males forming coalitions competing for tenure over prides. Average pride size (including males and females) is four to six adults ; prides generally break into smaller groups when hunting. Lions tend to live at higher densities than most other felids, but with a wide variation from 1.5 adults per 100 km in southern African semi-desert to 55/100 km in parts of the Serengeti (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002). Pride ranges can vary widely even in the same region: e.g. , from 266-4,532 km in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park of South Africa (Funston 2001), and 20,500 km in the Serengeti (West and Packer in press). In India, the habitat of the Asiatic Lion is dry deciduous forest . The Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary is surrounded by cultivated areas and inhabited by the pastoralist Maldharis and their livestock. Domestic cattle have historically been a major part of the Asiatic Lion's diet , although the most common prey is the chital deer. Mean pride size, measured by the number of adult females, tends to be smaller than for African Lions: most Gir prides contain an average of two adult females (Nowell and Jackson 1996)(ref 293650).

List of Habitats:

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Lions are carnivorous , they prefer to eat zebras, wildebeest, antelopes, and buffalo, but they will hunt small rabbits and other small animals as well. They will eat almost anything including other lions.

Adult females require an average of 11 pounds of meat per day and adult males, 15.4 lbs . The pride provides food to its sick and wounded members but not to the male. The male uses his size to take what he wants of the lioness' kill.

A typical diet will include zebra, giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, gazelles and impala. Lions are opportunistic and will readily scavenge the kills of cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs and hyenas.


After a gestation period of 100-119 days, the pregnant female leaves the pride and finds a place to deliver. Depending on the physical characteristics of their habitat , lions will hide their newborn cubs in marshes or kopjes.

The number of cubs born depends on the age and dietary condition of the mother. The litter size is 1 to 4 offspring. The pride synchronizes its reproduction so they can rear their cubs together, each suckling the others' cubs as well as their own. For example, if a lioness is away hunting, her cub will be suckled by another lactating female. Cubs are nursed 6-7 months.

Cubs reach sexual maturity at 24 to 28 months in captivity and at 36 to 46 months in the wild. The difference here is one of nutrition. Overall cub mortality rates are high. In the wild as many as 80% die before they are 2 years old. Because the cubs are not able to compete with larger ones during feeding, some of them starve. Even in times of abundance cubs may starve if all the kills are small.

If a pride is taken over by a new male who has defeated the top resident male, he will most likely kill any existing cubs that are under 2 years old. This rapidly brings the females into breeding condition, ensuring that the strongest male gets to breed and continue his genetic line .

The average lifespan of a lion in the wild is up to 16 years. In captivity, they often live 10 years beyond that.

Females mature in about two years. Lions are induced ovulators which means that they can mate at any time of the year. The period of gestation for the lion is between 105 and 118 days and about three or four cubs are born. The mother gives birth to her young in a secluded place away form the pride. The mother introduces the cubs to the pride when they are about eight weeks old. Very often, several females give birth about the same time, and they share the duties of protecting and nursing the cubs. Mothers nurse for up to eight months, although they begin to take cubs to eat animal kills when they are about three months old. At about eleven months, cubs start learning to hunt with the pride, but it will take several years of practice before the young lions become accomplished hunters. Females take care of their young until they are about two, when the mother is ready to produce a new litter .


Lions live in social groups called prides. Lions are the only cats that live in groups. There are usually one to two males and about seven females, but the size of each pride varies. The females are normally sisters and cousins that grow up together. When male lions reach about two and a half years old, the adult male lions drive them out of the pride. They then have to find another pride to join, but to do this, the male lion must run off the other males in the pride to join the pride. This usually ends in a brutal battle.

Lions are more social than most other cat species which are usually solitary by nature. They live in prides composed of 3 to 30 individuals, related adult females and their young. Each pride has its own social dominant hierarchy in which the weakest male ranks above all females. If a resident males are defeated by new males they will leave the pride and typically will never return.

On the open plains , hunting takes place at night. In areas of high grass or thick foliage , it may occur during the day. Research by Dr. Craig Packer, at the Lion Research Center, on the reintroduction of lions into South African Parks, has found that lions will ambush prey at rivers or water holes . They prefer to hunt near river confluences that funnel prey into a small areas. He has found that highly attractive spots will remain so for generations. In two parks where lions were re-introduced, the released animals explored the entire reserve before selecting a specific area and developing a clearly defined home range .

The male rarely hunts with the pride, perhaps because its mane makes it too obvious. Lionesses hunt instinctively in a cooperative fashion. When hunting in a group they fan out to surround prey and attempt to drive it toward one another. Since lions can only run 36 mph., and some of its prey can run up to 50 mph., cooperation and stealth are vital. The females are expert stalkers and the color of their coat helps camouflage them. If a female is hunting alone, it is imperative that she gets a close as possible to her prey, which often has the ability to run faster than her. If an individual is hunting alone it will only be successful about 17% of the time. If two or more hunt together they will have a success rate of 30%.

The prey is eaten by all members of the pride. As each struggles to eat as much as possible, fights erupt, growling, hissing, and paw swiping. The strongest eats the most. Afterwards they all calm down and greet each other affectionately and the peaceful cooperative life of the pride continues.

Communication: Lions communicate with each other in a wide variety of ways. The most important is through body contact. Passing lions of the same pride greet each other by rubbing their cheeks together. Sometimes this is prolonged into neck and body rubbing as well.

Grooming serves social as well as physical needs of the pride. In grooming, the hard bumpy tongue combs fur clean, cleans off blood after feeding, and removes ticks, fleas and other parasites. Grooming also reinforces social bonds.

Lions are also extremely aware of the subtle changes in posture of each other. Facial expressions are unusually varied from an antagonistic, defensive threat , with snarling or hissing to an aggressive threat with growls.


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Panthera leo (Linnaeus, 1758) • Panthera leo leoPanthera leo leo (Linnaeus, 1758)


Name Status: Accepted Name . Last scrutiny: 15-Aug-2007 Based on genetic analysis (O'Brien et al. 1987, Dubach et al. 2005), two subspecies are recognized: African lion Panthera leo leo (Linnaeus, 1758) Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica (Meyer, 1826) In their review in Mammalian Species, Haas et al. (2005) recognized six African subspecies, although these were not subject to analysis(Ref 293650).

Similar Species

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Members of the genus Panthera

ZipcodeZoo has pages for 33 species and subspecies in this genus:

P. leo (African Lion) · P. leo atrox (Lion) · P. leo leo (African Lion) · P. leo persica (Asiatic Lion) · P. leo spelaea (Eurasian Cave Lion) · P. onca (Jaguar) · P. onca onca (Jaguar) · P. pardus (Leopard) · P. pardus adersi (Zanzibar Leopard) · P. pardus delacouri (Leopard) · P. pardus japonensis (North Chinese Leopard) · P. pardus jarvisi (Sinaï Leopard) · P. pardus kotiya (Sri Lankan Leopard) · P. pardus leopardus (Leopard) · P. pardus melas (Javan Leopard) · P. pardus nimr (Arabian Leopard) · P. pardus orientalis (Amur Leopard) · P. pardus panthera (North African Leopard) · P. pardus saxicolor (Persian Leopard) · P. pardus sindica (Leopard) · P. pardus tulliana (Anatolian Leopard) · P. tigris (Tiger) · P. tigris altaica (Amur Tiger) · P. tigris amoyensis (South China Tiger) · P. tigris balica (Bali Tiger) · P. tigris corbetti (Indochinese Tiger) · P. tigris jacksoni (Malayan Tiger) · P. tigris longipilis (Siberian Tiger) · P. tigris sondaica (Javan Tiger) · P. tigris sumatrae (Sumatran Tiger) · P. tigris tigris (Bengal Tiger) · P. tigris virgata (Caspian Tiger) · P. uncia (Snow Leopard)

More Info

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Further Reading

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Data Sources

Accessed through GBIF Data Portal November 18, 2007:



  1. Mean = 940.970 meters (3,087.172 feet), Standard Deviation = 538.510 based on 124 observations. Altitude information for each observation from British Oceanographic Data Centre. [back]
Last Revised: 2014-05-23