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.
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.
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.
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.
The Smithsonian's National Zoo is home to six lions—males Luke, Shaka and Jumbe and females Shera, Amahle and Naba.