Photo by: Kevin Pluck
Panthera leo, better known to people as the lion, is one of the five members that belongs to the genus Panthera. The five big cat groups belong to the mammalian family Felidae. While lions don't reside in the jungle, it's thought that they are given this title due to how strong, powerful and fierce they are.
Range and Habitat: In the past lions have been found on the continent of Africa and also parts of Asia and Europe. You would find lions in grasslands, scrub or open woodland habitats. The range has been decreasing and you can now only find lion populations in parts of the sub-Saharan African region. There is also a small population in Asia that is located in India’s Gir forest (1). Lion populations have been decreasing mainly due to humans. Lions will kill a rancher’s livestock; the rancher will retaliate and kill lions seen in the area surrounding his property. People have also been hunting lions for sport. Stories of this have been popping up more recently, with pictures of the hunter standing over their kill.
Physical description: Most lions have a sandy brown coat of fur that ranges from a light brown to a darker brown. There are some species that have a white coat. Only males grow a mane, which is different in color from the rest of their fur. A male’s mane will get darker and longer with age. Lions typically weigh anywhere from 330-500 pounds, but they can exceed 500 pounds (3). Lions are carnivores that walk on their toes. They are equipped with padded feet so they can move around quietly, which is important for when they are hunting. The eyes of lions have been adapted to help them see when there is little light. Their tails are important to help them balance but they are also used to signal other lions when hunting (2).
Behavior: Lions are a carnivorous species that hunt for their food. Females do the majority of the hunting by working in groups with other females and ambushing their prey. Since they work in groups they are able to take down large species such as, giraffes, buffalo, hippos and rhinos. Lions also scavenge for food. If another animal has made a kill lions will often take over those kills. This scavenging behavior accounts for 50% of the food that they eat. After a kill is made the food is not shared equally among the group. If for some reason food is lacking or scarce, juveniles are likely the first to die because older lions will not share their food, this includes mothers not sharing with their young (3). All the other cat species are solitary except lions. They form prides and work together by dividing up the work that needs to be done. Prides usually consists of fifteen members which has five or more females, their offspring and a couple of males. The main responsibility of the males is to protect the females, offspring and their territory from other prides. Lions are a pretty affectionate species. When they are lying around, which is usually 20 hours a day, they enjoy laying with others in their pride and touch and rub their heads together. They can also show affection by licking and purring. In prides, a couple female lions will often give birth around the same time. In this case the cubs are raised together. If one of the mothers is neglecting her cub the other mother will raise the cub as her own. However, if food is scarce mothers have been known to abandon their cubs (3).
Ecology: Terrestrial ecosystems often rely on predator-prey equilibrium. Lions play an important role in this and there are negative impacts to ecosystems when there are fewer or no lions in the area. The decline of lions in terrestrial areas is often linked to anthropogenic causes such as, poaching, hunting and killing because of livestock predation. Lions help to control the herbivore populations like buffalos, wildebeests, elephants, hippos and giraffes. Lions are the only carnivores capable of taking down the larger herbivores like elephants. When lions are limited or completely gone from terrestrial ecosystems there are increases in herbivore populations. When those increases occur the vegetation in the area decreases drastically because of the larger herbivore populations. With vegetation being scarce, smaller herbivores suffer and have a hard time finding food. Eventually food resources would be limited for larger herbivores as well. This can lead to populations dying out. It may not be viewed this way but lions are helpful to the species they hunt. When lions are hunting they are able to determine which members are weak, sick or hurt, and they go after those members. This can weed out members of species that are unfavorable and help to insure that species are breeding healthy offspring (4).
Conservation status: According to the IUNC red list of threatened species, lions are listed as vulnerable. It’s estimated that there has been a 30% reduction in the species over the past 20 years (5). The main cause for this reduction is due to people killing lions when their livestock are killed. Some ranchers have built structures made of stones and thorn bushes. This has helped in keeping livestock in and predators, like lions, out (7). Though the species as a whole is listed as vulnerable, lions living in the West African region are considered endangered. In order to protect the species, certain areas of Africa have been declared protected areas (5). Lions inhabiting these areas are less likely to see a decline in their populations. Conservationists also try to limit the lion to human contact and conflict. One way for this to happen is to ensure that there are plenty of wild food sources for lions to hunt and to also preserve their habitats (5). A subspecies of Panthera Leo is the Asian lion. This species has some different physical features compared to lions, but they are still able to breed with one another and produce offspring. There used to be populations all over Western Asia but are now only found in India. At one point the Asian lion was a critically endangered species. In order to save this species, preservation was made in India’s Gir Forest National Park (6). This species numbers have been increasing over the years but they still need to be protected.
1. National Geographic. African Lion. Retrieved Nov 22, 2014 http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/african-lion/
2. Lions of Africa. Retrieved Nov 21, 2014
3. African Wildlife Foundation. Retrieved Nov 23, 2014
4. Lion Alert. (7 Mar 2012) The Ecological Role of Lions. Retrieved Nov 23, 2014 http://www.lionalert.org/page/article-ecological-role-of-lions
5. Bauer, H., Nowell, K. & Packer, C. 2012. Panthera leo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Retrieved Nov 23, 2014 http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/15951/0
6. World Wildlife Fund. Asiatic Lion. Retrieved Nov 23, 2014
7. Bauer, Hans., Buij, Ralph., Croes, Barbara and de Longh, Hans. (2008). Management and conservation of large carnivores in West and Central Africa. Retrieved Nov 23, 2014 http://www.leofoundation.org/downloads/Carnivores_CEDC_2008.pdf#page=109