When we hear about lions we automatically think of the 'king of the beasts', an age-old description deriving perhaps from a time when Victorians hunted lions for sport or from more recent popularisations of the 'beast' in films such as Born Free. These films all depict the lion in a 'kingly' way, with its mighty roar and sumptuous mane doing much to reinforce the image of 'king'.
A lion is a four-legged feline with short, coarse fur that covers its whole body. Lions have a short, wide nose with small ears and oval-shaped eyes. They are also surprisingly very similar to tigers in skeleton structure. A lion (and all other members of the Felidae family) will store energy in its spine and release it in a short jump. When jumping, the tail plays a vital role in maintaining balance. The lion will use this energy like a coiled spring; their back legs springing out, using the energy in the spine, while their forelegs are in the air.
Male lions weigh on average between 150 and 250kg. The female, however, weighs between 120 and 182kg. There is also some difference in height and length. Males stand about 125cm tall at the shoulder and can measure up to 250cm in length. This does not include the tail, which can measure an additional 90 to 105cm; so in total a male lion can measure 360cm in length. Female lions are smaller, standing about 107cm tall and measuring less than 175cm in length, with a slightly shorter tail.
However, it is the females that hunt for the food in a pride, while the larger males guard the young. Occasionally some of the males will join the hunting party; normally these are young adolescent males who are learning to hunt.
Lions are very stocky animals with a massive set of shoulders. They have long powerful legs with sharp deadly claws. In their mouth there is a set of 30 teeth; canines to grip onto and catch the prey, special premolars and molars called 'carnassials' to slice into the flesh of the carcass and small incisors to take meat off the bone.
The fur colour of a lion varies depending on where you find them, ranging from light brown to ochre red. All lions have a dark tip of fur on the very end of their tails. It is only the males of the species who grow a mane - this starts quite light and thin but with age the mane grows and darkens. There are some variations in the species; Asian lions have a belly fold1, while African lions, not having a belly fold, have fuller manes.
A lion's roar can be heard up to five miles away. In the wild a male lion lives for about ten years, a female 12. In captivity though, with regular feeding, a lion can live for up to 25 years.
Lions are an oddity among the big cat group; they are one of the few species of felids that live in groups called 'prides'. This is another way that people can tell the difference between tigers and lions, because tigers are fiercely solitary, only ever coming together to mate. Prides range from two to 12 adult females. All of these female lions are related sisters, daughters, aunties, grandmothers etc. This big family will look after each others' cubs in much the same way that meerkats do. This greatly improves a cub's chance of survival, but even with this extra protection only a third of cubs live past their first birthday. Once a female lion has been born into a pride, they will stay there for life.
Males on the other hand are different. A male lion cub is driven out of his pride between the age of two and four. The lucky cubs leave with related males. The unlucky cubs have to team up with unrelated males. These groups of all-male cubs are called 'coalitions'. Coalitions have one purpose in life - to join a pride of females and mate. It is unlikely that there will be no males in this pride, so the new coalition has to drive the current coalition out2.
The victors get females to mate with while the losing coalition must go off and find a new pride of females. If the new coalition wins then there is a period of trouble for the females in the pride, as the new male lions will try to kill off the cubs that were fathered by the old coalition. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, the new male lions need to exert their power over the females. Secondly, and most importantly, females are a lot more willing to mate if they do not have any cubs of their own. Of course, the female lions will not give up their cubs easily. If all the females fight together then they will normally save a few of them. On the other hand, if they fight one-on-one with the much bigger male lion the female doesn't stand a chance. On average a new coalition will kill one out of four lion cubs.
These changes in pride ownership take place every two to four years. When these exchanges are not going on, life in the pride is comparatively peaceful. There may be a few fights for alpha male status, but nothing serious. Lions are very social creatures and as previously mentioned they are the only felid that lives in a group. They build social bonds through cheek rubbing and vocalisations.
There is a recurring state in female lion cycle called 'oestrus' - this is when she is ready to mate with male lions, and she will mate with all the male lions in the coalition. After a gestation period of 110 days she gives birth. She will not give birth in the middle of the pride though - she will go off and find a secluded spot away from the pride to do so. There are usually between one and four cubs in a litter and the new cubs are accepted into the pride at about eight weeks old. Normally a few female lions will give birth at the same time, so they will share the duties of feeding and protecting the young between them. The mothers nurse the cubs till they are eight months old3. At eleven months they start to take part in hunts - it takes time and practice to become impressive hunters. The mother will stop looking after their cubs at two years of age, and then they are ready to produce a new litter. Male cubs are normally then driven out of the pride and forced to start a new collation.
As there are no direct roles in the pride, a male lion will often be seen looking after the cubs. When the male lions are not sleeping they will mark their territory with scent. Being in a pride is vital to a male lion's chance of success. Male lions not in a pride do not live very long.
Male lions in a pride depend on the success of the hunting parties. If they don't kill a prey then no one eats. A pack of lion hunters is a formidable force, but only one in six attempts at killing are successful, usually depending on the size of the prey. Contrary to popular belief lions often scavenge food off other carnivores, such as hyenas. Feeding has a structure but there are no bits of the carcass saved for certain members of the pride - unlike wolves, who have a very strict structure4. In the lion pride the males eat first followed by the females, who fight amongst themselves for the best bits. This is regardless of who actually made the kill. Cubs, being at the bottom of the pride, eat last. The typical diet for a lion is: zebra, wildebeest, hares and even giraffe. Lions will normally kill their prey by biting the spine, or grabbing onto the front of the animal and then suffocating it. A lion is very quick over a short distance, but it does not have the endurance to kill over a long distance. In a group, lions will kill larger prey, while on their own they will kill smaller prey such as warthog.
Where to See Lions
Thousands of lions are kept in zoos. If you prefer seeing lions in their natural habitat then perhaps you should consider going on a safari. You could also visit Longleat House in Wiltshire, England, where lions are free to roam parts of the grounds of this excellent family-oriented safari-cum-stately home. The BBC TV series Animal Park is filmed there.
The lion is a member of the cat family, Felidae, in the carnivore order, Carnivora, and is classified as Panthera leo.