Do Lions Actually Purr? And Other Questions, Answered

Inspiring and intimidating. Fascinating and fierce. Lions are  the largest carnivores of the African savannah. But how much do you really know about them? 

1. Do lions coordinate attacks on prey?

Yes. A group of lions, or pride, can work together to hunt and take down animals. Almost like running a football play, lions are known to move into complex formations and take on different roles before launching an assault on unsuspecting prey. One common strategy is for several lions to stealthily encircle their prey in a triangular pattern, with one lion launching an ambush attack that drives their fleeing prey towards the other hidden lions. 

2. Do lions purr?

No, big cats, like lions and tigers, cannot purr to show contentment. This is due to an anatomical difference in the hyoid apparatus that lies in the base of the animal’s throat. Smaller members of the feline family—like house cats, bobcats and sand catshave a hyoid bone that can vibrate against the cat’s larynx. This vibration is what creates that soothing resonant noise, or purr, in small cats. But in big cats, the hyoid bone is replaced by a fleshy length of muscle and cartilage, which is the same feature that allows lions and tigers to roar. This appendage is too soft to vibrate like a hyoid bone, which means it’s biologically impossible for a lion to purr. 

So how do lions display their contentment? Often through a combination of growls, grunts and moans. 

Photo of a large-maned male lion laying in grass. This photo is of Luke, who passed away in 2022.

3. Why are some male lion manes larger than others?

There is still much debate among the scientific community as to why male lions grow such thick, luscious manes. Some evidence suggests female lions may be more attracted to males with longer, darker manes, which could imply that a healthy head of fur lets females know that the male is a desirable candidate for breeding. Another common theory is a thick mane offers some degree of protection against bites to the throat from challenging males. Mane growth appears to be linked to testosterone levels, so a big, furry mane might send a message to potential rivals that they should think twice before picking a fight.

4. Do lions use the same hunting strategies for all prey species?

A group of lions will often rely on ambushes to take down prey, but their exact hunting patterns vary depending on which animal they hunt. For smaller animals like gazelles and warthogs, lions will often attack with a straightforward ambush assault. For larger animals, like zebras or Cape buffalo, lions might choose to charge headlong at the herd, creating chaos and separating weak individuals who can be picked off more easily. One pride of lions in Botswana has been documented hunting elephants by isolating the calves from the rest of the herd, then driving them into a deep river and retrieving the carcass after their victim drowned.        

Photo of a female lion and six cubs at the Zoo's Great Cats exhibit.

5. Does a pride of lions hang out in one big pile? 

Not really. Lions are the most social species of cats. A pride of lions usually consists of six to 20 females, along with one or two males and the group’s cubs. Lions form strong bonds with the other members of their pride, but they do not always travel in tight formation. Instead, large groups of lions will often split up into fractured groups and disperse across the landscape, which allows them to defend their territory more effectively.  Pride members seem to stay in close communication with roars and often meet up for sharing kills, breeding and defending the territory from outside threats.

6. How long do male lions occupy a pride? 

Adult male lions usually live with a pride of females and their cubs for about 2-3 generations. While the basic social unit for female lions is a pride, the story is a little more complicated for males. Young male lions are typically kicked out of their birth pride around adolescence, when it becomes clear to the adult male that the younger male will become competition. After leaving their birth pride, adolescent bachelor males form coalitions, usually made up of two or three males from the same litter. These groups will wander their habitat until they are ready to take over another pride—usually by challenging the resident male, or males, to a fight. When one male group challenges another, death is typically the result for the losing side. 

The new resident male, or males, in some cases, will defend the pride and serve as the females’ breeding partner for two to three generations, or about three to five years. After losing a challenge to a new coalition, the former resident male will either die or be driven out. Even if he survives, the losing male is forced into a nomadic life, and male lions typically do not live long lives as nomads. 

Female African lions Sheera and Amahle in the Great Cats exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

7. How loud is a lion's roar?

How loud is a lion’s roar? In the open savanna, a lion’s roar can be heard from over 5 miles (8 kilometers) away. One experiment measured a male lion roaring at 114 decibels—that’s nearly as loud as a thunderclap.

In Washington, D.C., a lion’s roar doesn’t travel quite that far. (By comparison, the lion exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute is about two and a half miles, or four kilometers, from the White House.) But the roars from the Zoo’s beloved lions are loud enough that local neighbors, including a few staffers who live nearby, can hear them roaring from inside their homes and apartment buildings.

8. How do lions, uh, stay regular?

Lions don't eat fiber... but they do eat fur! Thanks to their relatively short digestive tracts, lions are obligate carnivores. This means they rely almost entirely on meat to sustain themselves. Long digestive tracts allow herbivores and omnivores to gradually extract nutrients from plant materials, which obligate carnivores cannot digest.  

Fortunately, there are non-meat items lions ingest, such as fur, hair and bone fragments from their prey, which add the bulk and structure necessary for a lion to cleanse and maintain a healthy bowel (or gut). Lions may be seen eating grass, but this is usually when they are trying to settle an upset stomach and need to purge their digestive systems.

Photo of a young lion cub crawling over its father's head. The adult looks annoyed.

9. Can I have a lion as a pet?

Aside from the many practical reasons it would not be a good idea to keep a lion as a pet, it is now (mostly) illegal to own lions in the United States. Lions are considered vulnerable by the IUCN, with an estimated 24,000 individuals remaining in the wild. However, by some estimates, between 5,000-10,000 big cats are owned privately in the United States. Many of these big cats, including lions, tigers and jaguars, are held in non-accredited facilities that are not connected to broader conservation efforts.

In December 2022, the U.S. Congress enacted the Big Cat Public Safety Act to end the private ownership of big cats as pets, while placing new restrictions on commerce, breeding, possession and use of big cat species.

10. Are lion populations going extinct?

Lion populations are decreasing...but not everywhere. Wildlife experts do not consider lions to be at immediate risk for extinction. However, decades of habitat degradation, poaching and human persecution have taken their toll. The total number of lions has dropped by 43% in the past 21 years. As of 2023, lions occupy just 17% of their former African range.

Fortunately, organized efforts to protect lions and their habitats are starting to pay off. Local populations of lions appear to be increasing in some areas of Africa, and in the last decade, lions were spotted in wildlife reserves in Mozambique and Chad where they were thought to be locally extinct. The establishment of protected nature areas and wildlife corridors might prove to be the key to survival for lions and hundreds of threatened African species, but decades of work remain before these animals will no longer be at risk for extinction.

A female lion at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

Interested in joining the effort to help lions? Consider volunteering at a local conservation organization or donating to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, which helps support animal care and wildlife conservation programs at home and abroad.

Also, you can learn more about the Zoo’s lions (and tigers) at the Great Cats exhibit, where the “Meet a Lion/Tiger Keeper” demo takes place at 11 a.m. daily.