Classification and Range
Along with all other cats, African lions are in the order Carnivora and the family Felidae. Felidae has 18 genera and 36 species. Lions and other big cats such as tigers, leopards and jaguars, are in the genus Panthera.
African lions live in Senegal east to Somalia, East Africa, Angola, northern Namibia and from Kalahari east to Mozambique and northern Natal. Prides on the Serengeti maintain and fiercely defend home ranges of 8-160 square miles (21- 414 sq. km). Some lions are nomadic and range an area of up to 1,600 square miles (4,144 sq. km).
Their primary habitat is grassy plains, savanna and open woodlands.
The head and body of males measure from 5.6-8.3 feet (1.7 - 2.5 m) in length. The tail adds an extra 3 - 3.5 feet (0.9 -1.1 m) in length. They stand approximately 4 feet (1.2 m) at the shoulder. Female African lions are 4.6-6 feet (1.4 -1.8 m) in length, with a equally long tail. Females are also shorter, approximately 3.5 feet (1.1 m) at the shoulder.
Both male and female lions are tan in color, effectively camouflaging them among the light-colored savanna grasses. However, male and female African lions are distinctly sexually dimorphic (there are observable physical differences between the sexes). Males have a mane that ranges in color from light to dark brown, to even black. The mane helps protect the male's neck during fighting and make him appear larger to competitors.
Male African lions weigh between 330 -550 pounds (150 -250 kg), while females weigh between 264 - 400 pounds (120 -181 kg)
In the wild, males live 12 -16 years, females 15 -18 years. In captivity, about 20 years.
In the wild: Prey generally consists of wildebeest, zebra and a variety of ungulates (giraffes, buffalo and gazelles). Occasionally, lions hunt the young of elephants, rhinoceros or hippopotamus. They also sometimes scavenge food, chasing away hyenas and other carnivores from their kills.
At the zoo: Commercially prepared feline diet, chickens, rabbits, mutton, beef
A female lion normally gives birth every 18-26 months. After a gestation period of about 100 -119 days, she gives birth to one to six cubs. However, litter size is usually three or four cubs, and each weighs about 3 pounds (1.4 kg). Young lions are weaned at 6-7 months after birth. Young cubs begin to participate in pride kills at 11 months, although they probably could not survive on their own until approximately 30 months of age. Lion infant mortality is very high, with fewer than 50% of newborn cubs surviving their first year of life. In the hierarchy of a lion pride, the males feed first, followed by the females and finally, the cubs. Since the pride may only kill an animal once every three to five days, it is clear why many cubs starve to death.
Lions are primarily nocturnal or crepuscular. They spend much of their time resting— often up to 20 hours per day. They rest for several reasons, including energy conservation, lack of prey, and to avoid the heat of the day. During periods of rest, lions have many opportunities for social behavior. They gather to sleep in a group, rub their heads together, and play; all of these behaviors reinforce social bonds.
Life in a group allows lions to cooperatively hunt for food . Female members of a pride may spread out around potential prey to attack from many directions. Generally, lions hunt by stalking, since they are not built for endurance running.
While hunting, lions usually give up a chase after 50 -110 yards (45-99 m). Lions strangle or suffocate larger prey by clamping down on their neck. Or, to prevent it from breathing, a lion may place its paw over the nose, mouth or windpipe of prey. A lion easily dispatches smaller prey with a swipe from one of its massive paws.
Living in a Pride
Lions are unique among the cats, since they live in large social groups called prides. A lion pride frequently has 20 or more individuals, typically two males, several females and their offspring. The pride's adult females are usually related to one another and are group members for life. On the other hand, the males are irregular members who must fight off competing males for leadership of their pride. Males remain with a pride only as long as they are strong enough to defend their group from other male pairs. A male pair normally remains with a pride for 3-6 years before other males force them away.
Location at the Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo's lions live in the zoo's award-winning African Savanna. If the lions are not visible anywhere in their outdoor exhibit, they are within one of three dens inside the Adaptations building, or on the backside of the exhibit behind the heated rock near the viewing window. Other mammals seen in the savanna area are giraffes, zebras, hippopotamus and fringe-eared oryx, to name a few. Also look for a variety of African savanna birds, including white-faced whistling ducks and Egyptian geese.
Keepers at Woodland Park Zoo periodically provide fresh elephant manure for the lions to roll in; it is placed by the observation window. They roll in it, eat it, and then they chase each other. The theory that explains why lions like to roll in manure is that if they sneak up on a grazing zebra or other prey species, it's better to smell like an elephant than like a lion. The zoo's lions seem to thoroughly enjoy the experience, and it enriches their lives by providing novel and new stimulus to their daily routine. They also enjoy dead chickens; the lions pluck them and then eat them. The lions also like fresh branches (logs) and browse. At times, keepers rub scents (spices, herbs, musk, etc.) on logs and rocks in their exhibit.
Although not presently endangered, the future of African lions is uncertain. The growth in human population is the primary reason for the great reduction in lion populations. Poachers hunt lions for trophies, and because they pose a threat to humans and livestock. Many lions have died in the Serengeti due to canine distemper. Lastly, expanding agricultural and grazing regions have greatly reduced lion habitat, in turn increasing the risk of inbreeding and the loss of genetic viability.
Lions are currently rare in western Africa, eliminated in most of southern Africa, and their numbers are also greatly reduced in East Africa. Elsewhere, a few zoos have been given the opportunity to work with the Transvaal lion (Panthera leo krugeri). The very rare Asian lion (Panthera leo persica) is found in a few zoos (in Europe), with a small population (around 200) living in the Gir Forest of India. To promote lion conservation, researchers study wild populations (such as serum collections, reproductive studies, etc.).
In 2012, a pair of Krugeri lions at Woodland Park Zoo had their first offspring together, marking the first litter of lions born at the zoo in 20 years!
How You Can Help!
The lion is perhaps the most iconographic of all the African savanna species. Their presence on the savanna immeasurably increases eco-tourism. In zoos, they help demonstrate the interdependency of all species. Breeding programs that maintain healthy captive animals are essential for the future of the species. Respect for traditional lifestyle and educational support empowers local populations to help save their ecosystem and the lions dependent upon it.
Each in-situ project supported by the zoo aims to provide a broad, holistic approach to conservation, encompassing research, education, habitat and species preservation. This includes comprehensive, cooperative strategies to link the needs of animals with the people who share their ecosystems.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Alderton, David. 1993. Wild Cats of the World. Facts On File, Inc., New York, NY. 192 p.
Grzimek, Bernhard, ed. 1975. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, Volume 12. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, NY. 657 p.
Nowak, Ronald M. ed. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World. 5th Ed. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London. 1,629 p.
Schaller, George B. 1972. The Serengeti Lion: A Study of Predator-Prey Relations. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Resnick, J. P. 1994. Cats. Kidsbooks, Inc., Chicago, IL. 29 p.
Zoobooks. 1992. Big Cats. Wildlife Education, Ltd., San Diego, CA. 16 p.
Zoobooks. 1992. Lions. Wildlife Education, Ltd., San Diego, CA. 18 p.