Can you believe I haven’t written about lions yet? It’s crazy! I love big cats, but I’ve written about surprisingly few of them. In part it’s because I try and pick lesser-known animals, but also because I tend to think of obscure animals and forget about the obvious ones. Still, it’s about time these majestic kitties had their own post!

The distribution of lions in Africa. Red is their historic range; blue is the areas where they are found today. Image by Tommyknocker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When most people think about lions, they think about Africa. That’s not the only place lions live, however. There are Asiatic lions as well. They used to range over a large part of southern Asia, but are now reduced to a small population in northwest India. Lions are fairly adaptable creatures, being found in semi-arid deserts, forest, shrubland and mountains. They do best, however, in savanna or plains habitats that provide a bit of vegetative cover.

Lions are the second largest cats in the world, right behind tigers (excluding hybrids like ligers). Males are larger than females, and can reach up to 272 kg, though they average around 189 kg. Females average a paltry 126 kg, and only stand about 1.1 m tall. Both sexes range in colour from tawny to silvery grey, and are lighter on their bellies and legs. Male lions, of course, are famous for their stylish manes, which are unique to lions among felids.

So why do male (and very rarely female) lions have such extravagant hair? The answer is that female lions find great big bushy manes very attractive — males with darker, denser manes are more likely to be chosen as mates by females. Though mane size can be influenced by genetics, sexual maturity, climate, and testosterone production, in general healthier males have bigger manes. So it makes sense for females to pick the hairiest males.

A male lion showing off his luxurious locks. Image by Kevin Pluck, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mating in lions can take place at any time of the year, with males mating with multiple females. The gestation period is 3.5 months, and litter size ranges between one and six cubs. Little lions are incredibly adorable, and can walk by 15 days of age, run at one month of age, and are weaned by 7 to 10 months. They stick around after that, still relying on adults in their pride until their are sixteen months or older.

Speaking of prides, lions have a complex social system, and are the most social of all wild cats. They live either in prides, with a stable group of related females and up to four adult males, or in small nomadic groups that consists of a single lion or pair of lions that wander around looking for a pride to belong to. Male lions defend their prides from wandering males who will attempt to oust the leaders from their thrones.

There are some benefits to living in a social group. Some lions can go hunting while others tend to the cubs, or protect the pride. In addition, if more than one female has a litter at the same time, the two can share nursing duties, which increases the survival chances of the cubs. Pride life can also be risky, however, especially for the young. When a lion takes over a pride, he will often kill any unweaned young. As gruesome as this is, it makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. You see, females with suckling cubs are not likely to breed again for another two years. If her cubs die, on the other hand, she will come back into estrous in a few weeks. This allows the incoming male to breed with her and spread his own genes. It’s still pretty awful, though. And I would think it would make being a lioness in a pride pretty stressful.

Look how cute the little guy is!! Image by David Dennis, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lions feed primarily on large ungulates (hoofed mammals), including Thompson’s gazelles, zebras, impalas, and wildebeests. Females do most of the hunting in a pride, as heavily-maned males are more easily spotted by prey. They hunt in groups, which allows them to take larger prey than they would be able to alone. Lions will also scavenge, and steal prey from other carnivores, such as cheetahs, leopards, and African wild dogs. They do also compete with hyenas, though the competition here is more even — at times lions will steal hyena kills, and at others the hyenas will drive the lions away.

Some lions do eat people, and there have been a number of famous cases recorded. It is thought that sick or injured animals are more likely to attack people, but healthy lions have also been known to do so. Humans also have a tendency to chase off or kill animals that lion prey on, which means you have a bunch of hungry, 180 kg animals looking for something tasty to eat. Are humans tasty? I wouldn’t know, but the lions seem to think so.

Lions are currently listed as a vulnerable species, thanks to habitat loss and conflict with people. Conservation efforts have focused on developing national parks and game reserves, where lions are protected from hunters. Hopefully we can keep these efforts going, as well as reducing lion-human conflict, to keep these beautiful cats around for a long time.

Cover image by Benh LIEU SONG, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons