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Lion Facts

Scientific name:
Family:
Male:
Height:
Female:
Height:
No. of teeth:
Lifespan:
Maximum speed:
Biggest Jump:
Gestation period:
Body Temperature

Panthera leo.
Felidae, Order: Carnivora, Class: Mammalia.
Avg. Length: 9 ft., weight: 350-400 lbs.
36 in. Lengths include the tail.
Avg. Length: 8 ft. weight: 250-300 lbs.
30 in. Height measured at the shoulder.
30
12 years in the wild. Females typically live longer.
30 mph over 50 yds.
12 ft. vertical, 36 ft. horizontal.
105-115 days.
101 deg. F


Physical Characteristics


The lion is a member of the cat family, and shares many common traits of this family. The body is very muscular, with less bone mass than other animals of comparable size. This is also responsible for the grace of movement we associate with members of the cat family. The forebody of the lion is very powerfully built, and has the greatest forebody strength of any cat, except possibly the tiger. This enables the lion to deliver blows with it's forepaws heavy enough to break a zebra's back. The bones of the front legs are twisted in such a manner as to give a great range of motion to the forelimb.

Each paw is equipped with soft pads to make it's movements quiet. Like most carnivores, lions are digitigrade walkers. This means they essentially walk on their toes. But, the majority of the animal's weight is borne by the main paw pads, which would correspond on a human to the palm of the hand at the base of the fingers. Extra bones in the toe joints give the toes a wide range of motion.Their claws are retractible and very sharp. The retractable feature helps keep the claws sharp, and prevents injury during play, etc. The dewclaw on the front limbs is often used as a toothpick. The claws grow as a series of layers. As a layer wears, it is shed, and a new sharp-pointed claw is exposed. The claw on a large lion can be 1 1/2 inches (38 mm) or more from base to tip along the curve.

The body is covered with a sandy brown coat in most subspecies of lions, but there is a white variant that shows up once in a while, especially in the Timbavati region of South Africa. (The white variant is also showing up more and more among captive lion populations.) Lions with a very dark brown coat have been observed, but this is quite rare. The coat color of a lion is not determined so much by the color of the hair, but by the ratio of light-colored hairs to dark-colored hairs.

The mature male lion has a mane that covers the backside of the head, and the shoulders. The extent of the mane varies from individual to individual, with some having no mane at all, while others have a luxurious mane that runs onto the body, along the abdomen, and even onto the fronts of the back legs in exceptional specimins. The mane varies in color from the rest of the body, and tends to grow darker with age. Some lions in the Serengeti area and from North Africa have a nearly black mane. Just like their body hair, the mane color is determined by the ratio of dark hairs to light hairs present. The mane hair is stiff and wiry, like stiff horeshair. Besides it's primary role of protecting the male during fights, it has been discovered that female lions prefer males with bigger and darker manes. The eyes are proportinately larger than in other comparable-sized animals, and posess round pupils. Lions, like most cats, are visual animals. The eyes are also well-adapted for use under very low light. This helps the lion hunt at night. A lion's eyes do not glow in the dark, but they contain a special reflective coating that will reflect even moonlight. Their eyes are effective even by starlight. A white circle just below the eyes helps reflect light into the eyes to further improve night vision. Like most mammals, lions have a nictitating membrane which serves to clean and protect the eye in some circumstances. Lions, like most cats, have limited ability to move their eyes side-to-side, and must turn the head to look in a different direction.

The sense of smell is well developed. Lions mark their territories by means of scent deposits, necessitating a good sense of smell. This also helps them find kills made by other predators, and perhaps obtain an easy meal by driving the other predator off their kill. Another interesting thing that lions and all other cats posess is a special olfactory organ on the roof of the mouth called a Jacobson's organ. Sometimes, you will see a lion, or even your cat, grimace when smelling something. They are opening their lips to draw air over their jacobson's organs. This grimacing gesture is called Flemen.

The sense of hearing is perhaps only slightly above average. The ears can be swiveled over a wide angle to enable the lion to hear distant sounds, and know what direction they are coming from. The lion's tail is the only one in the cat family with a tassel at the tip. (Tigers also have a tassel, but they are not found in the wild.) This tassel conceals a spine, which is the last few tail bones fused together. What function this spine serves, if any, is unknown. The tail is very important for overall balance. Females also use their raised tail as a 'follow me' signal for the cubs. They also use it to signal each other during a group hunt.

The lion's teeth are well adapted for killing their prey and eating it. The great canine teeth are spaced such that they can slip between the cervical vertebrae of their favorite-sized prey animals, and sever the spinal cord. The shape of the back teeth, which are called carnassals instead of molars, makes them work like a pair of scissors, for cutting pieces of meat. The jaw is not capable of moving side-to-side, like ours. This helps keep the carnassal teeth in alingment for cutting. The rest of the teeth are conical, and designed for cutting and tearing. Lions, like all cats, do not chew their food, but swallow it in chunks.(This lioness is 'Sierra' at the Sierra Safari Zoo in Reno, NV.) They also use only one side of their mouth at a time. This trait is also common to all cats, and is caused by the inability of the jaw to move side-to-side. The tongue is covered with rough spines, called papialle. This helps the lion scrape meat off of bones, and acts like a comb for grooming.

The digestive system of the lion is simple, not unlike a human's. Meat is fairly easy to digest, and the elaborate digestive mechanisms present in their prey for breaking down celluose are not needed. Cats, in general have the shortest digestive tracts of all animals.

A lion's body temperature ranges from 100.5 to 102.5 degrees farenheit. 38.05 - 39.16 degrees C.)

No physical description of the lion would be complete without some mention being made about it's magnificent roar. Only four cats can roar: The lion, tiger, leopard, and jaguar. These four cats have been assigned to the genus Panthera because they can roar. Of these cats, the lion roars the most. It is beleived the roar serves to alert other lions of an individual's presence. Roaring choruses of several lions, or a whole pride, also take place. When a lion roars, it can do so with enough force to raise a cloud of dust. Roaring is made possible by a special two-piece hyoid bone in the throat. All of the non-roaring cats have a one-piece hyoid bone. It is said that a lion's roar can be heard 5 miles (8 km) away.

Lions and Humans

The relationship between man and the lion have not always been a good one. Even to this day, lions are still shot as vermin in some parts of Africa. Until recently, lion populations in general were healthy in most of their present range, with numbers in the 30-40,000's. Poaching, and habitat destruction have taken their toll on the lion, but the biggest problem today appears to be disease. Diseases such as canine distemper, tuburcelosis, and FIV (feline equivalent of HIV) and even HIV have decimated lion populations in the last several years. South Africa is espercially hard-hit, with dramatic population losses in the Kruger National Park area. Population estimates for wild lions now number 18-24,000.

A small population of lions lives in the Gir Forest Sanctuary of India. This population of lions has come back from a very low number to about 350 animals. Very recently, a new sanctuary has been declared for the lion in this area, giving them more room to spread out without causing conflicts with humans. Suprisingly, certain tribes of people coexist more or less peacefully with the lion in these sanctuaries. Still, the Asiatic lion is highly endangered.

Another factor that has led to severe losses in lion population in some areas is hunting. It has always been the norm for hunters to take male lions. When a pride male is killed, new males take over the pride and kill the cubs. This effectively stops the pride from producing new adults for 18 months to two years. Also, the tendency to select bigger-maned lion while hunting has resulted in an overall decrease in mane size among wild lions. As a result of these factors, many countries in Africa have banned lion hunting, or severely restricted it.

The lion is the only big cat that is not considered an endangered species (Asiatic lion excepted). It is listed in CITES appendix II as a 'threatened species'. This means that there are some restrictions in international trade of lions and their parts. But with the current sharp decrease in lion populations, endangered status is probably not far down the road.

Pride Life

A pride of lions is a family structure. It consists typically of 4-20 females with their cubs, and typically, two or three males. The number of males in a pride can very from one to as many as seven. It is being found that two or males in the pride is the best situation for long-term survival. Two or more males will have more success in staving off takeover attempts by other males. Although a single male may only be able to hold a pride for an average of 18 months (With a lion generation being about 22 months), a group of several males may succeed in holding a pride for several years.

All of the females in a pride will be related to one another, and the young cubs are usually of the pride male(s).

Male(s) who wish to take over a pride will challenge the male(s) in control. One form this sometimes takes is a 'stare-down', where two males will sit a few feet apart, face-to-face, and stare at each other. The first one to break his stare is the 'loser'. This can go on for many hours. Eventually, most pride control power struggles end in some form of physical confrontation. Fights to the death occur occasionally, and many a male in his prime has fallen acquiring or defending a pride. Surviving losers often become nomads, and have to fend for themselves. They tend to lose weight, and scavenge more than they hunt as they grow older. However, it is not unknown for another lion to share their food with one of these old nomads. It is interesting to note that females outnumber males by a substantial margin in wild lion populations, even though the birth ratio is about 50 percent male/female. This is probably due to the tendency of males to be nomads, take on more dangerous game, and be killed in pride takeover attempts. Elderly males are often killed by other predators.

Lions of both sexes will rub each other in greeting. This rubbing can be quite vigorous and forceful. Males will sometimes knock each other over when they rub. One person who raises lions suffered 2 broken ribs from a particularly intense rub she recieved (in affection, of course!). This rubbing serves a purpose. There are scent glands on the corners of the mouth. Rubbing deposits this scent on the other lion. This scent is kind of like a mark of bonding or ownership, and the other lion will relish this mark. This behavior is common to all felines, and your house cat does this too, when it rubs you. Male lions will also spray other lions as a means of enhancing bonding.

In a pride, the females do most of the hunting. It is often observed that the male will eat first, and then the females. This way, the males get big and strong. They also get somewhat clumsy, and this, combined with a big mane, makes them less-adept hunters. Although the pride male can, by virtue of his size, easily dispatch a prey animal the females are struggling with, he relies on the females for a lot of his food.

Despite their size and clumsiness, male lions are still formidible hunters. When patrolling the territory, they will often hunt for themselves.
In return for 'the lion's share', the male is responsible for marking a pride's territory. He does this by spraying scent from a gland on his anus, on vegetation. He can also mark his territory by scratching marks on trees. (These also serve to sharpen the claws, and clean out any bits of meat caught on them.) The male also defends his territory, and of course, provides the pride's 'stud service'. It is unusual for a male to have control of a pride, if he is beyond the age of ten years.

Researchers have recently found small populations of lions with a markedly different pride structure than what is found on the African plains. These lions have been found in very desolate country along the upper Nile river. In these prides, the roles of the males and females are reversed. the males do most of the hunting, with Cape buffalo being their usual prey. The lionesses mainly stay at home with the cubs. Often, a pride will live in a cave. The researchers who discovered this theorize that this may be typical of the lion that lived in the holy lands, and may explain some of the untypical traits of the lion mentioned in biblical texts. More research is being done in this area.


Breeding


Lions become sexually mature around the age of two to three years. At this time, the males go off in search of a pride of their own. The females generally become the breeding stock for the next generation of the pride. However, some females will wander out of the pride (Or be kicked out in rare cases) and become nomads. Nomadic lions will mate, and even raise families.

Mating among lions is not much different from that of any other cat. A female lion can come into heat at any time, although there tend to be peak periods for mating in different parts of Africa. A female will be in estrus for 4-8 days. If no pregnancy results, the estrus cycle will repeat in about 90 days or so. During mating, the male and female are together constantly, and they usually do not eat.

The mating begins with growling, pawing and even biting. When the female is finally in the mood, she lies down, and the male mounts her. Actual copulation takes 6-10 seconds, after which time the male gently bites the female's neck. The female then turns and bares her teeth at the male. The cycle repeats itself, maybe every 20 minutes, and a pair of lions can mate 40 times in a day! It is also known that a female may mate with more than one male during her estrus. The result is her cubs may have different fathers.

Male cats have spines on their penis that point backwards. The purpose of these spines is to cause slight trauma to the female's vagina upon withdrawal of the penis. The resulting pain triggers ovulation. It may also help explain why the female turns and bares her teeth at the male at the end of mating. The penis is also very mobile, and can be pointed backwards for spraying. In fact, I have observed the penis pointed backwards most of the time on one lion, and this may be the normal condition. Lions can also move their penis from side to side while spraying, to catch something a bit off-center (I have been sprayed this way).

Female lions are also capable of synchronous breeding. Especially if a new set of males has just taken over a pride and killed all the cubs, the females will come into heat all at once. This serves to shorten the reproductive cycle for the first generation of new cubs.

Hunting

Lions are social animals. By hunting together, they can go after bigger game. Bigger game means more food for everyone. (Lions don't think about ecological advantages, they just like to eat!) The typical prey animal that is taken by lions is in the 250 pound (112.5 Kg.) range, but much larger game (Such as buffalo) is hunted when conditions permit. (In the SavutiNational Park in Botswana, adult elephants and hippos are occasionally taken.) Prey species more commonly taken include zebra, wildebeest, gazelles, antelope and waterbuck. Lions will also hunt smaller animals, when they are hungry and nothing bigger is available. Even crocodiles are occasionally hunted.

Lions are also expert scavengers, and obtain as much as 40 percent of their food by stealing it from other predators, or finding already dead animals.
Although they are the largest, lions are by no means the best hunters in their ecosystem. (Cheetahs are probably the best.) They do not do simple things that solitary predators tend to do, like keep the wind before them. Instead, lions survive because there is so much food available around them, and they tend to hunt in groups. Even their impact on prey populations is smaller than might be suspected. About one in fifteen of any given popular prey animal will become a lion meal in a given year. This isn't even enough to significantly control population growth! On average, a single lion will kill 15-20 large herbivores a year.

Hunting is done most frequently in the evening, or early morning. Much hunting is also done at night. The moonless part of the night is preferred for hunting. Less hunting is done during the day, due to the heat, and better chances of being spotted by the prey. Lions do hunt during the day, and their best statistical chance of a single animal making a kill is when they stumble across a lone prey animal who is caught by surprise.

Group hunting methods are ruthless and scientific. The younger members of a pride will often 'drive' a herd of prey animals towards the more experienced hunters who are waiting in ambush. Sometimes, one or more lions will wait in ambush at a waterhole, and jump on unsuspecting animals coming for a drink. In any case, the hunts are surprisingly well organized.

Once a lion has selected an animal to attack, it will sprint to it and attempt to grab hold of it. Lions are not endurance runners, and need to be fairly close to their faster quarries. Often several individuals will assist in making the kill. Making a kill is generally done in two stages: first, bring the animal down, then actaully kill it. In most cases, this process starts by a lion jumping onto the back of the selected prey animal, and working it's way towards the neck. It will use it's needle-sharp claws to hold onto the animal while doing this. Many animals who are sucessful in escaping being killed will undoubtedly later die from the severe lacerations inflicted by the sharp claws.

The most frequently used killing method is suffocation. A single lion will often get a good bite on it's victim's throat, and crush the windpipe. Especially when killing large prey, one lion of a group will clamp it's mouth over it's victim's nose and mouth while the other lions hold it down. It is not unusual for the other lions to open the abdomen and begin eating while the animal is still being suffocated. In fact, this often kills the animal faster than the suffocation does. (Interestingly enough, the victim rarely struggles after it is brought down. This is probably due to the shock of being caught, and suggests that they may not be suffering as much as you might be led to beleive. Some people also believe that lions are capable of 'projecting a thought' into the prey to help it suffer less.) Sometimes, a large group of hungry lions will so completely immobilize an animal that they just simply tear it apart. Although it may seem that lions sometimes try to 'humanely' dispatch their prey, the real reason they like fast kills is that they can start eating sooner.

A variety of other techniques are occasionally used to make the kill. A well-placed swat with their massive paws can also instantly immobilize an aninimal by doing considerable internal damage. Very small prey is killed by simply biting through it. A more spectacular killing method, often seen on nature shows, involves leaping on the prey's back and biting the back of the neck. The big canine teeth slip between the vertabrae and break the spinal cord. Death is immediate. A few observers have recorded lions hooking their paws around the neck in such a way as to immobilize the head while flipping the body over. This breaks the neck, and kills the prey, although few if any broken necks have actually been observed.

As soon as the prey is dead, a single lion will often drag it's catch to a less open spot. The abdomen is opened, and the meal usually starts with the entrails. Lions vary widely in their tastes, which tend to vary on a region by region basis. Almost all lions eat the heart, liver and kidneys. Some lions will often then bury the stomach and intestines, but frequently just make an attempt at doing this. Why they do this is unknown. Other lions will eat everything in the body cavity except the stomach, showing a strong preference for the intestines. The meal then proceeds with the hindquarters, which is the fleshiest part of the animal. The lions will then work forwards towards the head. It is also unusual for lions to open the skull. Individuals in a group of lions feeding will go for whatever they can get their teeth into, with the strongest individuals getting the best morsels. If the pride male is present, he will often (but not always) hog the kill for himself, until he is sated. The females eat next, and then, the cubs. In some locales, the males prefer the flesh and will start eating the hindquarters of a fresh kill while the females fight over the entrails.

Lions have poor table manners and will often fight over their food. But, when it's all over, they will lick each others' wounds. Imagine getting wounded just trying to eat dinner! Unlike most other cats, lions prefer to eat crouching or lying down. Just because a lion suceeds in making a kill dosen't always mean it gets to eat it. Frequently, other predators, especially hyenas, will pester a lion to the point where he will abandon a kill to them. Smaller predators aren't as sucessful, but often grab scraps when the lion isn't looking. This works in reverse, too. Often one or more lions will scare another predator off of it's kill. Lions are scavengers, too. They will eat most anything they find dead. For many old males too old to run down live game, scavenging may be their only way to find food. A lion will gorge itself, if possible, on a kill. An adult will typically eat 40 pounds (18 Kg.) of meat at a time, with reports of as much as 75 pounds (34 Kg.) consumed in one sitting. A single lion may take two or more meals from a kill over a 2-3 day period, while prides usually cannot get more than one meal for everybody after an average kill. After eating a large meal, lions will sleep for as long as 24 hours (what a life!). A good, full meal for a pride may result in four days of little activity, and no great desire to hunt until the sixth day. A lion can hold a posture that tells the prey animals around it that it is not hunting. The lion will then be able to pass by without causing much more than unusual caution.


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