Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus and Species: Panthera leo
  • Male lion resting and showing long mane which is blackish toward the back
  • Closeup of male lion iwth long flowing mane and piercing yellow eyes
  • Closeup of female lion with pale brown fur and yellow eyes
  • Young lions frolicking with mom
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The world's most social felines, lions roam the savannas and grasslands of the African continent, hunting cooperatively and raising cubs in prides. Online visitors can catch a glimpse of the Smithsonian's National Zoo's lions on the Lion Cam, sponsored by Macy's. 

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 also vary in 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. Without their coats, lion and tiger bodies are so similar that only experts can tell them apart.


Male lions grow larger than females, reaching up to 10 feet long (3 meters). Females reach up to 9 feet long (2.7 meters), plus a 2- to 3-foot-long tail (60 to 91 centimeters). Male lions weigh from 330 to 550 pounds (150 to 250 kilograms); females weigh 265 to 395 pounds (160 to 180 kilograms). Lions stand between 3.5 to 4 feet (1 to 1.2 meters) tall at the shoulder.

Native Habitat

Except for a small population of the Indian lion subspecies that remains in the Gir Forest of northwest India, lions now live only in Africa, from the Sahara's southern fringe to northern South Africa. They are absent from equatorial areas dominated by moist tropical forest. Lions inhabit a wide range of habitats, from open plains to thick brush and dry thorn forest, avoiding only wet tropical forest.

Food/Eating Habits

Lions eat primarily large animals, such as zebra and wildebeest, weighing from 100 to 1,000 pounds (45 to 453 kilograms). 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.

The Smithsonian's National Zoo's lions eat ground beef, which is commercially produced to meet the nutritional needs of carnivores. Twice a week, they receive knucklebones or beef femurs and once a week they receive rabbits, which exercise the cats' teeth and jaws.

Social Structure

Lions are the world's most social felines. They live in groups of related females called prides, which may comprise several to as many as 40 individuals, including adults, sub-adults (2 to 4 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 usually 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 (usually between the ages of two and four). 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 (can be heard up to five miles away) and scent marking (urine). Females raise the cubs and are the primary hunters, although males will sometimes join the females during a hunt. Depending on the prey item, several lions may stalk prey from different angles to within 100 feet (30 meters) before attacking the targeted animal. Nomadic males must hunt alone or scavenge from other animals.

Reproduction and Development

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 typically give birth to one to four cubs after a gestation of about three and a half months. Cubs typically 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, up to 80 percent of lion cubs die within their first two years of life.


Zoo lions may live up into their late teens or early 20s. In the wild, a lioness may live up to 16 years, but males rarely live past the age of 12.

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 national 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 habitat must be carefully protected. In disease-ridden areas, ranging dogs must be kept away from lions or immunized.

During the past decade, lion populations have declined by about 30 percent and there are currently an estimated 20,000 lions remaining in the wild.

Several factors influence the decline of lion populations including loss of habitat, poisoning and hunting. The Gir Forest population, which consists of about 250 lions, is listed as critically endangered, is declining and suffers from inbreeding.