A pride of African lions in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.
Credit: Lion image via Shutterstock
Lions are large felines that are traditionally depicted as the "king of the jungle." These big cats once roamed Africa, Asia and Europe. However, now they are found in only two areas of the world and are classified into two subspecies. Asiatic lions live in India's Gir Forest; African lions live in central and southern Africa. Though they look similar, these two subspecies are very different in size, habitat, diet and more.
Size & characteristics
The African lion is 4.5 to 6.5 feet (1.4 to 2 meters) long from its head to its rump, and its tail measures from 26.25 to 39.5 inches (67 to 100 centimeters) long. African lions typically weigh 265 to 420 lbs. (120 to 191 kilograms).
Asiatic lions tend to be much bigger, according to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). They weigh 300 to 500 lbs. (120 to 226 kg) and are 6.56 to 9.18 feet (200 to 280 cm) long. Their tails measure 23.62 to 35.43 inches (60 to 90 cm).
Male lions are generally larger than females and have a distinctive mane of hair around their heads. The mane's function is to make the male look more impressive to females and more intimidating to other males, according to the San Diego Zoo. The mane also protects the male's neck during fights over territory or mating rights.
African lions live in Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. They wander a territory of 100 square miles (259 square kilometers), according to National Geographic. This territory consists of scrub, grasslands or open woodlands.
Asiatic lions are found only in the Gir Forest National Park in India. This park is a wildlife sanctuary on 877.37 square miles (1,412 square km) of land. The land includes a deciduous forest, grasslands, scrub jungle and rocky hills.
African lions eat large animals that they find in the grasslands, including antelopes, zebras and wildebeest. Asiatic lions eat large animals as well, such as goats, nilgai, chital, sambhar and buffaloes. They are also known to eat smaller animals.
Lions are very social cats and live in groups called prides. Asiatic and African lion prides are very different, though.
African lion prides consist of up to three males, around a dozen females, and their young, according to National Geographic. There are prides that have as many as 40 members, though.
Asian lions divide themselves into two prides. The females have a pride and the males have a pride. They only come together during mating season.
With both types of lion prides, the females stay put. All of the females in a pride are usually related to each other because females tend to stay with the pride in which they are born. Males, on the other hand, wander off to create their own pride when they are old enough.
At 3 to 4 years old, males and females are ready to mate. The female has a gestation period of around four months. She will give birth to her young away from others and hide the cubs for the first six weeks of their lives. At birth, the cubs are only around 3 lbs. (1.5 kg). They are also completely dependent on their mother.
All of the females in a group of lions mate at the same time. After the first six weeks, the cubs are taken care of by all of the females and will often nurse from females other than their mother, according to the San Diego Zoo.
The taxonomy of lions recognized by most experts is:
Genus & species: Panthera leo
Subspecies: Panthera leo leo (African lion), Panthera leo persica (Asiatic lion)
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) only recognizes these two subspecies, while the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, lists six other subspecies. However, there is ongoing debate among researchers about whether those are true subspecies, according to the University of Michigan's Museum of Zoology.
Lions face threats from hunting, habitat loss and diseases that can be spread from domestic dogs in nearby villages, according to the National Zoo.
African lions are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. This is because their numbers are decreasing. Their current population is estimated at 30,000 to 100,000. The population has been almost cut in half in the past two decades because of retaliatory killings by farmers (whose livestock the lions eat), as well as from trophy hunting and habitat loss.
Asiatic lions are in a much more perilous position as human encroachment has reduced their habitat. The IUCN lists them as endangered and says only about 350 of them exist. This group includes only about 175 mature individuals.
Females are the main hunters of the pride. They form hunting parties to round up the fast animals found in their habitat.
Lions also go toe-to-toe with animals much larger than themselves. Lions can kill animals that weigh up to 1,000 lbs., according to the Smithsonian National Zoo. To kill their prey, lions use their powerful jaws to snap the prey's neck or to strangle it to death.
Male African lions that are trying to take over a pride will kill all of the cubs to avoid competition.
Lions and tigers are so closely related that if you shaved them you wouldn't be able to tell them apart. Their body structure is so similar only experts can tell them apart, according to the Smithsonian. Lions are also related to leopards and jaguars.
Though mountain lions (pumas) are in the same family (Felidae) as Asiatic and African lions, they are not considered lions.
According to the WWF, lions can run up to 50 mph (80 kph) for short distances and leap as far as 36 feet (11 m).
- Smithsonian National Zoo: Lions
- San Diego Zoo: Lions
- World Wildlife Fund: Lion
- WWF: Asiatic Lion
- Gir Forest National Park in India