One of the most majestic and regal feline species, the African lion (Panthera leo) resides in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, from the southern fringe to northern South Africa. A small number of Asian lions can also be found in the Gir Forest of northwest India. Since the 1950s, the African lion population has been reduced by half. Today, fewer than 22,600 remain in all of Africa, according to the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.
Lions are the most social felines, and the only cats that live in groups. Called prides, these groups usually consist of 15 or more lions. However, prides can be as small as three or as big as 40 members. The lionesses in prides are related, and each pride has one to three resident males. Although most female lions are known to stick with one pride for their entire lives, young males often leave the group to establish their own prides.
Because lions are most active at night, they spend up to 70 percent of the day conserving energy by resting or sleeping.
Lions prefer to pass the scorching, sunny African days cooling off in trees or lounging beneath the shade of dense vegetation.
In the wild, male African lions seldom live longer than females. While the lionesses live for 15 to 18 years, the male life span is an average of 10 years. Lions are not known to have any particular mating season and will mate throughout the year.
A lioness will give birth to a litter of one to four cubs in a secluded den that is usually located away from the rest of the pride. She will return to the group with her cubs when they are about 6 to 8 weeks old. Lion cubs are born with a lightly spotted coat and bright blue eyes. The leopard-like spots fade as they mature and disappear when they are 6 to 9 months old, and their eyes eventually change to a permanent golden hue.
A lion's roar can be heard from more than 5 miles (8 kilometers) away! Both male and female lions roar, with cubs beginning to roar at about age 1. Sometimes, an entire pride will partake in a roaring chorus. At dusk, a male lion will usually let loose a thunderous roar to alert members of his pride that they should gather together and to also warn intruders to stay away from his territory.
In prides, the lionesses do most of the hunting, which they primarily do after dusk. They sneak up on their prey as a group, carefully closing in on the animal from various angles. They then quickly run in short bursts of speed and attack the prey.
Once the prey is surrounded, the lions strike, often killing it by strangulation. Although females are the primary hunters, males will sometimes join in on a hunt.
A lioness leaving an elephant carcass; researchers have found lionesses often leave the scenes of their crimes since prey are likely on high alert.
Lions lap up water in the same endearing fashion as other felines.
Only the male African lions proudly sport their species' signature mane. The shaggy hair completely encircles their heads. Male cubs begin to develop manes at age 2, when they become sexually mature.
A pride's males are mainly in charge of defense duties, protecting the group from intruders and members of other prides that may be up to no good. They are always ready to fiercely defend their territory, which they mark with their scent and urine. Females also assist in marking a pride's domain, which can encompass approximately 100 square miles (259 square kilometers).
Most lions' coats are a tawny yellow-gold, and males' manes range in color from blond to rusty brown or even black. However, African lions can also be silvery yellow, grey or chocolate brown with a tan underside. The fluffy tuft at the end of a lion's tail usually fades to a black tip. African lions with a rare genetic disorder known as leucism are born with snowy-white coats, but since the condition differs from albinism, their eyes are golden, not red.