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Bio Facts: Lion

Lion
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Common Name:

Lion

Scientific Name:

Panthera leo krugeri

Family:

Panthera leo krugeri

Order:

Carnivora

Class:

Mammalia

Range:

Originally suitable habitat throughout Africa; today limited to sub-Saharan Africa

Habitat:

Savanna, scrublands and open woodlands

Description:

On average, an adult male lion stands about 4 feet at the shoulder and is 5.6 to 6.3 feet long.  Average weights vary from 330 to 550 lbs.  Tail length averages 3.3 feet long.  Females are considerable smaller and weigh less than 300 lbs.  Adult lions usually have a plain unspotted coat, light brown to dark ochre in color.  Cubs are marked with spots, which sometimes persist on the legs and belly until they are full-grown.  Male lions have a brown mane, which tends to grow darker and fuller as the animal ages.  The tail has a black tuft at the end.  “White” lions occasionally occur in the Transvaal region of southern Africa, but these are not true albinos.

Life Expectancy:

Life span in the wild is 10 to 15 years; in captivity, they can live 25-30 years.

Sexual Maturity:

24 to 28 months in captivity; 36 to 46 months in the wild.

Diet:

In the wild, they eat large and medium-size prey, wildebeest (gnu), buffalo, zebra, antelope, giraffe and warthogs.  In the Zoo, they are fed a commercially prepared, scientifically developed carnivore diet and knuckle bones.

Status:

IUCN – Vulnerable

Behaviors:

The roar of the lion can be heard up to 5 miles away and can be most intimidating up close.  Territorial roaring is usually heard an hour after sunset.  When separated they roar to let each other know where they are.  Females often call their cubs by roaring.

Lions are the only cats that live in large family groups.  Each pride differs in size and formation, but a typical pride consists of two males, seven females, and a variable number of cubs and adolescents.  The male’s primary role is to defend the territory and females from other males.

Territories are scent marked with urine, feces and head rubbing.  Roaring may also have a territorial function.  Claw marking on trees and other objects also plays a role in marking territory.

Lions are most active at night, but will occasionally hunt during the day.  They may spend up to 20 hours per day just lying around.  Adult females require approximately 11lbs.  of meat daily and the males nearly 15.5 lbs.  The bulk of a lion’s diet consists of animal weighing between 110 and 1100 lbs.  Lions are opportunistic feeders, exploiting any prey available, even rodents, hares, small birds, and reptiles.  On the open savannas where cover is sparse, lions usually restrict hunting for the nighttime hours.  Where vegetation is thick, hunting may also occur during the day.

When several lions are stalking prey, they usually fan out and partially encircle prey, cutting off potential escape routes.  Although lions can reach speeds of 35 mph, prey capable of speeds up to 50 mph may still outrun them.  Using stealth and stalking techniques, lions creep to within 100 feet of their prey before rushing at it.  Before the prey has a chance to outrun its predator, the lion may slap at it, knocking it to the ground or grab it.  Usually one in four charges ends successfully.

All pride members usually consume prey.  Squabbles break out when several are feeding together or when the carcass is small.  These minor tiffs are usually over quickly and rarely result in injury.

Subadult males are driven out at 2 ½ to 3 years of age and may go into a group with other males.  Females mature in about 2 years, males a few years later.  Females come into estrous more than once per year with the receptive period lasting only 2 to 4 days.  All big cats are induced ovulators, i.e., the release of the ovum is brought about by the act of mating.  The period of gestation is between 105-118 days and usually 3-4 cubs are born.  Cubs are small, weighing less than 1% of the female’s body weight.  Cubs are weaned gradually and start eating meat at three months of age.  Cub mortality is very high in the wild.  Eighty percent die before reaching two years of age.  A female’s interval between litters is usually two years.

Males in a pride are surprisingly close.  They fight fiercely and cooperatively against strange males, but not against each other, even when receptive females are close by.  A sort of “gentleman’s agreement” seems to be in place.  The first pride male to encounter a receptive female is usually accepted as the dominant male.  Fighting does not occur amongst pride males for the right to breed receptive females.

Adaptations:

The African lion has a backward curved, horny papillae covering the upper surface of the tongue, which are useful in both holding onto meat and for removing parasites during grooming.

The mature male’s mane not only makes him appear larger but protects his throat during fights with mortal enemies such as marauding lions and hyenas that may be after his cubs to kill.  Males with the largest manes are also the first to feed after a kill.

Roaring is made possibly by a fully ossified hyoid bone in the throat.  In small cats, this bone is made of flexible cartilage, which enables them to purr but not roar.

Breeding behavior in lions is paramount to a grueling Olympic event.  For the duration of a female’s receptivity, a pair will copulate approximately every 20 minutes for two to four consecutive days.  Mating may occur as often as 50 times in one 24-hour period.  The evolution of such a behavior may be the result of a prosperous environment.  If an area can support this kind of energetic activity with the pair foregoing food and water during this time, then the area should be prosperous enough to successfully raise cubs.

Established males are quite friendly and tolerant towards females and sired offspring.  However, new males taking over a pride act quite differently at first.  They are liable to kill at least some of the cubs not related to them.  By doing so, they are assured that there is less competition from older siblings when sired cubs start arriving.  This act also stimulates females to come into estrous soon after their last cub has been killed, which means the new males are then able to sire offspring sooner.

Special Interest:

Lions can run at speeds over 30 mph, but only over short distances.  A lion is a digitgrade, or toe walker; that is his heel does not touch the ground.

Females usually do the hunting and will often hunt in groups.  Not all hunts are successful, but a group has a much better chance of successfully capturing prey than does a lone hunting lion.  Generally, if the prey cannot be caught within a chase of 150-300 feet, the lion gives up.  There have been reports, however, of lions chasing prey for up to 1500 feet.

Folklore:

The lion is seen as the king of all animals, with typical qualities of supreme intelligent pride, fierceness, strength, and loyalty.  This view has affected many customs and beliefs across the world.  One example in particular indicates the strength of felling a lion.  To ensure that a young son would be healthy, brave, and strong in adulthood, it is alleged that it was common practice for tribal mothers in Africa to feed part of a lion’s heart to him.

One other popular African belief tells us of how the lion’s personality has been developed.  It has long been said that the lion was thought to be jealous of the gamecock because of its beautiful crest of feathers on the top of its head like a crown and the fluffy, rather dapper, leg spurs.  The cheeky bird is also said to not revere the lion in the same way as all the other animals, quite the opposite in fact.  Because of this, it is said that the lion partially fears the bird and allows it to be king of its area.

While the lion has been known to be an animal that eats meat, including people if driven to such needs, it has long been a belief that one will not eat a royal prince or any member of royalty.  This belief is connected to the belief that the lion, as the king of all animals, shows respect for its human counterpart.

Conservation:

Seven to twelve subspecies of lion have been recognized depending on your source. Two of those forms are now extinct, the Barbary lion and the Cape lion. One subspecies is endangered, the Asiatic lion (Panther leo persica). In 2005 the census count for wild Asian lions was 359 - mostly in the Gir Forest in India, and in 2006 there were 90 found in zoos.

African lions are protected in parks and reserves in Africa, such as Kruger National Park in South Africa, Kenya’s Amboseli National Park and Serengeti National Park. Captive programs such as the AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP) have also helped save lions. The concentration of the SSP has been with the Transvaal lion (Panthera leo krugeri).

Widespread persecution of cats in the wild has made them one of the most threatened major groups of land animals. Only about 25,000 lions live in the wild today, down from more than 100,000 only 25 years ago.

Jacksonville Zoo History:

It is unclear just how early African lions arrived at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.  Records document the birth of two cubs in 1928, so we know they arrived prior to that event.  Records also indicate that African lions have probably been in our collection ever since.  Currently, we exhibit the Transvaal or South African lion (Panthera leo krugeri).

Last Revised:

2007