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Lion

African Lion Facts

Size 31-43 inches (80-110 cm) (shoulder height)
Speed Up to 34 mph (55 km/h)
Weight 240-550 pounds (110-250 kg)
Lifespan 8-18 years
Food Antelopes, gazelles, zebras
Predators -
Habitat Tropical Africa, West India
Order Carnivore
Family Cats
Scientific name Panthera leo
Characteristics Big cat, male with thick mane

Main Characteristics

Lions are big cats that live in Africa. They're considered an endangered species. Unlike other big cats, they live in prides and are primarily active at night. The males have a striking, large mane.

Male Lion Male Lion - Photo: Pablo Hidalgo/Shutterstock

Species

There is the African and the Asiatic lion. The Asian ones have a different appearance, as they males have a significantly shorter mane.


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Distribution and Habitat

Lions are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Their habitat is savannas, grasslands, open bushland, dry forests and semi-deserts. In Asia, their living space is limited to the Gir National Park.

African and Asian Lion African and Asian Lion - Photo: Ruzdi (left)/stock.adobe.com, Impvjoshi (right) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Life Style

Lions are the only big cats that live in groups. They're called prides. They're most active at night to hunt for prey. During the day they rest, drink at nearby waterholes and take long naps in the shade of trees and bushes. They sleep up to 22 hours! Each pride has a large territory that is defended against other prides. The boundaries are marked by urine, feces, scratch marks and roars.

Anatomy and Appearance

The Biggest Cat (?)

The King of Animals? For many, the lion is the most impressive cat. However, it's not the biggest. This honor goes to the Siberian tiger. The lion is the second largest.

Size and Weight

African lions have an average body length of 62-74 inches (160-190 cm), a shoulder height of 31-43 inches (80-110 cm) and a weight of 260-440 pounds (120-200 kg). The tail is 27-41 inches (70-105 cm) long. How big and heavy a lion is depends on what sex it is, where it lives and what subspecies it belongs to. The females are smaller and lighter, the males larger and heavier. In individual cases, males can even have a body length of over 78 inches (200 cm) and weigh up to 550 pounds (250 kg).


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Mane

Males Yes, Females No

Male and female animals can be easily distinguished from each other. The males have a mane, the females don't. Its color is light brown, reddish brown or even black.

Why Do Male Lions Have Manes? 

In the past, biologists believed that it protects them against injuries when two males fight each other. However, the animals usually attack the back and the hind legs. In the end, scientists found that the mane is all about looks. The darker and longer the mane is, the "prettier" it is for lionesses.

Teeth

Lions don't chew. They swallow the meat whole because their teeth are made for tearing, not for chewing.

Lion Characteristics Lion Characteristics - Photo: Ruzdi/stock.adobe.com

Diet

Prey

Lions are carnivores. They prefer medium-sized ungulates such as antelopes, gazelles and zebras, but they also prey on large animals such as wildebeest and buffalos. They rarely hunt elephants, giraffes and hippos because they are too big and too strong. If ungulates aren't available, they include smaller animals such as rabbits, rodents, birds, turtles and crocodiles on their “menu”.

Food Needs

Lions need 11-15 pounds (5-7 kg) of meat per day. In a single meal, they can eat up to 15% of their own body weight, which can be 44-66 pounds (20-40 kg). 

Lion Hunting Lion Hunting - Photo: Dr Ajay Kumar Singh/stock.adobe.com

The Pride

Structure and Organization

There are around 20 animals in a group, mostly consisting of female animals: mums, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and cousins. Only three to four animals are adult males.

The Role of the Female

The main task of the females is to hunt and take care of the offspring.

The Role of the Male

The male animals hardly ever take part in hunting, but still have important tasks. They mark their territory and defend it from invaders. They also protect the offspring while the lionesses hunt.

Life in a Pride

The females remain in the group for their entire lives. As soon as the male offspring are two to three years old, they have to leave the pride. As long as they haven't found a new one, they team up with other males. To take over a new pride, a male has to prove that it is stronger than everyone else in the pride. It has to defeat all the males. Such a fight happens about every two to three years in every group.

Lion Pride Lion Pride - Photo: henk bogaard/stock.adobe.com

Behavior

Why Do Lions Roar?

Lions are famous for their roars. They do it to communicate with the pack, but they also use it to intimidate conspecifics from other prides. Both males and females roar. A lion’s roar can even be heard from a distance of five miles (8 km).

Lion Roaring Lion Roaring - Photo: Moiz/stock.adobe.com

Hunting

When Do They Hunt?

Lions don't hunt during the day. They wait until night, when the weather is cooler and they can't be seen easily. Their eyes are much better adapted to night vision than their prey's.

How Do They Hunt?

Lions can run quite fast. They reach a speed of up to 37 mph (60 km/h) over short distances. However, antelopes are much faster. They can cover large distances at 60 mph (90 km/h). So what should they do? They go hunting together and take advantage of the element of surprise. They sneak up to their prey from different directions until they are about 30 m away from their victim. During the attack, the prey can't evade its enemies.

Lion and Zebra Lion and Zebra - Photo: Mogens Trolle/Shutterstock

Life Expectancy

In the wild, lions live 8-18 years.

Enemies and Threats

Natural Enemies

Lions have no natural enemies. However, if they try to take down a large adult ungulate, they can be severely wounded. For example, by buffaloes, giraffes, elephants, hippos and rhinos. Porcupines can fatally injure a lion using their lengthy spines.

Human Impact

The biggest enemy of lions is humans and the threats they have to face are diverse. Their habitat is shrinking due to road building and construction of settlements, while the number of prey animals is decreasing. They're often targeted due to their proximity to human communities. They're also killed for their meat or to display their head or fur as a trophy at home. Their bones are considered to have a healing effect in traditional Chinese medicine - but this has never been scientifically proven.

Are Lions Endangered?

Yes, the lion is considered an endangered species. There are only around 23,000 African lions left (data from February 2023, as of June 2024). The last Asiatic lions live in the Gir National Park in India. They're threatened with extinction because there are only 650 animals left. Attempts are being made to reproduce them again through a breeding program. The hope is that it can be reintroduced into the wild sometime in the future. The Barbary lion existed in North Africa until the 20th century. It is now extinct. The reason for this was hunting.

Importance for the Ecosystem

Lions play a crucial role in their ecosystem. They help maintain a healthy balance in nature by preying on medium to large herbivores, preventing overpopulation. They focus on weak, sick or old animals, reducing the spread of diseases and parasites within herds and ultimately promoting their overall health and vitality.

Reproduction

Lions give birth once a year. During the first four to six weeks the cubs stay in their hiding place, until they are strong enough to participate in the life of the pack. After three months, the cubs can follow their mother. With about 12 months, the male offspring start to grow their mane. It takes five years until it's fully grown, though. At the age of two to three years old they are old enough to leave the pride and find a new one themselves.

Baby Lion Baby Lion - Photo: Moiz/stock.adobe.com

Fun Facts

White Lions

Lions usually have yellowish or light brown fur. There are also white ones, but they are very rare. Their coat color results from a rare mutation in their genes. However, they're not albinos. Albinos lack the color pigments and have red eyes. White lions typically have blue eyes.

Can You Cross a Lion With a Tiger?

Yes, lions and tigers can have offspring. The cross between a male tiger and a female lion is called a tigon. If the male is a lion and the female a tiger, it's called a liger.

Stepping Into the Lion’s Den

We use this idiomatic expression when we think that we are entering a dangerous situation. It derives from the fable "The Old Lion and the Fox". In this story, an old and weak lion pretends to be sick and asks other animals to visit it in its den (because it is too weak to go out) - and eventually eats them. The fox is the only one that sees through the plan. He notices the tracks that only lead into the cave, but not back out again.

The African Lion Is Related To:

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