The King of Beasts! The Queen of Beasts! Symbol of Africa and of the wild. Symbol of power and strength. Top of the food chain. Fierce. Playful. Gentle. Ferocious. Majestic. Sleepy. Lions have fascinated people from the beginning of recorded history. They have starred in books, movies, songs, and art. Fans of the Lion King know that Simba, the Swahili word for lion, also means “king,” “strong,” and “determined.” In English, to call someone “lionhearted” means that he or she is courageous and strong.  

Physical description

You have seen pictures of lions in books or movies, and maybe you have seen living lions in a zoo. How would you describe what a lion looks like? A large animal with short, tan fur, roughly the size of a tapir and smaller than a zebra? Looks a bit like a big, tall housecat? Has a muscular body and limbs, and a deep chest? A short neck, and a round head with short ears and eyes that face forward? Sharp, retractable claws and large canine teeth? Some with extra-long hair around their necks and shoulders? All correct descriptions of these iconic and beloved creatures!

Size

African lions are the second-largest of the large cat genus, Panthera, which also includes tigers, jaguars, and leopards. Lions are taller than tigers, but not as long or as heavy. Adult female lions (often called lionesses) usually weigh 265 to 395 pounds – a lot heavier than a housecat! – and stand almost 3½ feet tall at the shoulder – about the height of a 4- or 5-year-old girl or boy. Female lions are usually 4½ to 5½ feet long in the body. Male lions are usually bigger than females – 330 to 550 pounds, 5½ to 8 feet long in the body, and 4 feet tall at the shoulder. 

Both females and males have tails that are 2 to 3 feet long and have a dark tuft of fur at the tip. The difference in size between females and males is an example of something called “sexual dimorphism.” Another aspect of sexual dimorphism in African Lions is that male lions have impressive manes – a collar of longer, thicker, often darker fur that covers their necks and shoulders. Female and male lions differ much more than females and males of other large cat species. 

Native range and habitat

There are two subspecies of lion, African lions and Asiatic lions. Almost all wild Asiatic lions live in a single reserve (protected area) in India, and there are only a few hundred of them. Wild African lions number in the thousands and also live in reserves or national parks. There a few small reserves with lions in central and western Africa, but most African lions live in protected reserves in eastern and southern Africa. Within these areas, lions can adapt to savannah, grassland, open woodlands, or even semi-desert – essentially any habitat where they can find cover for hunting. 

Social structure

African lions are the most social of all the cats. They usually live in groups called prides that can have as many as a few dozen members. A pride usually has several adult females that are related to each other, one or more unrelated adult males, and several cubs and sub-adults. Female lions often stay in their mother’s pride for life. Males leave the pride at sexual maturity and take over another pride or form a new pride of their own. 

African lions are territorial. They declare their territory by scent-marking with urine and by roaring – other animals can hear a lion’s deep, resonant roar from miles away! African lions ferociously defend their territory from other lions, usually with the males of the pride fighting any other male that transgresses into the pride’s territory. 

Diet and hunting

Lions are carnivores – they eat meat. Wildlife biologists call them obligate carnivores. That means that their bodies cannot make some of the nutrients they need to survive, and they must get those nutrients by eating other animals. In the wild, lions hunt a wide variety of prey animals, but mainly large mammals. Among their favorites are antelope, wildebeest, zebra, and sometimes juvenile elephants, giraffes, rhinos, or hippos. When they cannot catch or scavenge large prey, though, lions will also eat birds, reptiles, or marine animals – really, whatever is available. In agricultural areas near villages, lions will feed on domestic livestock. Lions in zoos, such as the Reid Park Zoo, are fed a balanced diet that includes ground meat with added vitamins, beef bones, and sometimes thawed carcasses of smaller mammals. 

Lions hunt in groups with other members of their pride. Most of the hunting is done by the pride’s females. Lions are not the fastest runners and they don’t have stamina to run long distances, so instead they use stealth, teamwork, and strength. Binocular vision from their forward-facing eyes makes them very good at judging distances. They use cover from grass and brush to sneak up close to their prey, often at dusk when it is harder to be seen, and then they launch their attach with a short burst of speed, and use their strength to pull down and kill their prey. 

When lions are not hunting, they spend a lot of time resting and sleeping. A lion will usually spend 18-20 hours of each day napping. Lions have no natural predators, so they can safely sleep on the ground, in the open. 

Reproduction & development.

 Following a gestation of about 3½ months, a pregnant female lion gives birth to a litter of 2-3 cubs. A newborn lion cub is tiny – about 2 pounds, has spotted fur, and often still has its eyes closed. Newborn cubs are almost helpless, so the mother keeps her cubs hidden from predators and separate from the rest of the pride for the first 6-8 weeks of life, rejoining the pride after that. The females in a pride usually give birth around the same time, and they then raise their growing cubs communally, with all the mothers sharing responsibility for care and protection of all the vulnerable young ones.

Lion cubs playfully stalking and pouncing on each other and on adults is one of the cutest behaviors in the animal kingdom! They’re clearly having fun, but they are also practicing crucial hunting skills.Young lions begin to participate in hunts when they are about 2 years old. Female lions begin to bear young at around 3-4 years old, and males begin to father cubs at around 5 years old. 

Lifespan

In the wild, male lions typically live to about 12 years, and females to about 16 years. Lions in zoos, with human care, typically live much longer, up to about 30 years. 

Conservation status

Paleontologists have determined that about ten thousand years ago, lions lived in most of Africa, southern Asia, southeastern Europe, and much of North and South America. Lions today are found in a much narrower range, though, and the number of African lions has dropped dramatically: 10-fold in the past 100 years, and about 3-fold in the last 20 years alone! There are now only about 20,000 African lions left in the wild, and they need help from us in order for the species to survive. 

What can you do to help protect and conserve African lions in the wild? The major threats to lions in the wild are loss of habitat due to either climate change or human development, and hunting for the wildlife trade. Visiting a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is one fun way to help – AZA zoos, such as the Reid Park Zoo, use part of their proceeds from ticket sales and membership fees to support researchers and conservation programs in Africa that work to preserve this amazing animal species.  

(And don’t forget to visit their cousins, a pair of beautiful and critically endangered tigers, when the Reid Park Zoo expansion is complete. You’ll be helping to save them as well.)