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Lion Facts

Smithsonian's National Zoo's Lion Cubs Are Growing!
Female lions lack manes.

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae

Species: Panthera leo

The world's most social felines, lions usually get by with a little help from their pride mates.

Physical Description:

Lions have strong, compact bodies and powerful forelegs, teeth, and jaws for pulling down and killing prey. Their coats are yellow-gold. Adult males have shaggy manes that range in color from blond to reddish-brown to black, and length. The length and color of the mane is believed to be determined by such factors as age, genetics, and hormones. Young lions have light spotting on their coats that will disappear as they grow up.

Size:

Male lions grow larger than females, reaching up to ten feet long (females reach up to nine feet long), plus a two- to three-foot-long tail. Male lions weigh from 330 to 550 pounds; females weigh 265 to 395 pounds. Lions stand between three and a half and four feet tall at the shoulder.

Geographic Distribution:

Except for a small population that hangs on in the dry Gir Forest of northwest India, lions now live only in Africa. They are found from the Sahara's southern fringe to northern South Africa, but are absent from equatorial areas dominated by moist tropical forest.

Status:

The lion is listed as vulnerable on the World Conservation Union's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Animals. The Gir Forest population, which consists of about 300 lions, is listed as endangered.

Habitat:

Lions inhabit a wide range of habitats, from open plains to thick brush and dry thorn forest.

Natural Diet:

Lions eat primarily large animals, such as zebra and wildebeest, weighing from 100 to 1,000 pounds. In times of shortage, they also catch and eat a variety of smaller animals from rodents to reptiles. Lions steal kills from hyenas, leopards, and other predators, but may also lose their catches to hyena groups. Lions may also feed on domestic livestock, especially in areas near villages.

National Zoo Diet:

Keepers feed the Zoo's lions beef. Twice a week the lions received bones (usually a beef hind shank, half femur, or knuckle).

Reproduction:

Female lions usually give birth to a litter every two years. Females are receptive to mates for a few days several times a year, unless they are pregnant or nursing. Mating spurs ovulation. Females give birth to one to six cubs after a gestation of about three and a half months. Cubs nurse for six months, but start eating meat at three months. Due to varied dangers, including starvation during times of food shortage and attacks by male lions taking over prides, 60 to 70 percent of lion cubs die within their first two years of life.

Life Span:

Zoo lions typically live into their late teens or early 20s. Male lions in the wild live about 12 years; females live about 15 years.

Behavior:

Lions live in groups of related females called prides, which may comprise several to as many as 40 individuals, including adults, sub-adults (two to four years old) and cubs, plus one or more resident males. Abundance of prey availability plays a significant role in the size of a lion pride. Pride mates associate in sub-groups within the pride.

Females stay in their mothers' prides for life, unless food scarcity forces them out. Young males are driven from their prides when they grow large enough to compete with the dominant males. Young males join in coalitions, usually with brothers and cousins, and search for a pride to take over. Males entering a new pride will kill all cubs that cannot run from them. Adult males that are fortunate enough achieve residency within a pride hold tenure for an average of two years, often leaving due to eviction by another coalition of males. In India, female and male lions live apart, joining only to mate.

Males take on most of defense duties, however, both males and females will mark their territories by roaring and scent marking (urine). Females raise the cubs and are the primary hunters, although males will sometimes join the females during a hunt. Nomadic males must hunt alone or scavenge from other animals. During a hunt several lions stalk prey from different angles to within 100 feet before attacking the targeted animal.

Past/Present/Future:

More than 10,000 years ago, lions thrived from North and South America to Europe, Africa, and Asia. Today, following climatic changes and after centuries of hunting and habitat degradation by people, lions live in scattered habitats across Africa (with the exception of the Gir Forest lions, which live in a park in northwest India). Within these areas, lions still face dangers, including habitat loss and hunting. Many have died from diseases such as distemper, which is spread by domestic dogs from villages near natural habitat.

To keep lions from becoming as rare as tigers, large expanses of suitable habitat with sufficient prey must be carefully protected. In disease-ridden areas, free-ranging domestic dogs must be kept away from lions or immunized. Meanwhile, the isolated Gir Forest lions have a limited amount of habitat, and frequent conflicts with people. For this population to grow, some of its lions must be moved to other reserves or the Gir Forest protected area must be expanded. At the same time, continuous conflicts between lions and people who live near them must be mitigated.

A Few Lion Neighbors:

  • spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta): Africa's second largest carnivore (after lions) is also one of the lion's greatest competitors for prey.
  • wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus): Also called a gnu, this strange-looking, migratory animal is the most abundant antelope on East and southern African plains. It is an important food for lions.
  • plains zebra (Equus burchellii): Another important prey species of lions, zebras wander widely across the East and southern African plains.
  • chital (Axis axis): Also called spotted deer, these Asian deer are important prey for India's lions.

By saving lion habitat, we protect these and many other animals.

Fun Facts:

  • Tigers are lions' closest relatives. Without their coats, lion and tiger bodies are so similar that only experts can tell them apart.
  • A lion's roar can be heard up to five miles away.
  • A male coalition rarely holds onto a pride longer than two to three years before being run off by fierce challengers