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Lions: The Uniquely Social 'King of the Jungle'

lion pair
Lions once roamed Africa, Asia and Europe, but are now only found in parts of Africa and India.
(Image: © Shutterstock)

Lions are the second-largest cats in the world, after tigers. Known as the "king of beasts" or "king of the jungle," these regal felines once roamed Africa, Asia and Europe, but now only live in parts of Africa and India. 

Experts have long recognized two subspecies of lion, Panthera leo leo (the African lion) and Panthera leo persica (the Asiatic lion). However, recent studies suggest that lions from West and Central Africa are more closely related to Asian lions than they are to lions from the eastern and southern parts of Africa, according to the Cat Specialist Group, a component of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In 2017, the Cat Specialist Group published their reclassification of lions into two new subspecies: Panthera leo leo (also called the Northern subspecies) and Panthera leo melanochaita (the Southern subspecies). 

Panthera leo leo includes lion populations in Central Africa, West Africa (West African or Senegal lion), India (Asiatic lion) and extinct populations previously found in North Africa (Barbary lion), southeastern Europe, the Middle East, the Arabian peninsula and southwestern Asia. Panthera leo melanochaita includes lion populations from southern parts of Africa (Katanga lion and the Southeast African lion) and East Africa (Masai lion and Ethiopian lion).

Although the West African and Asiatic lions are genetically similar, many of their physical characteristics and behaviors are slightly different. [In Photos: The Lions of Kenya's Masai Mara]

How big are lions? 

African lions can grow to between 9 and 10 feet long (3 meters) from head to tail, with the tail being about 2 to 3 feet long (60 to 91 centimeters), according to the Smithsonian National Zoo. They typically weigh between 330 to 550 pounds (150 to 250 kilograms), with males reaching the higher end of that range. 

Asiatic lions (also called Asian or Indian lions) are slightly smaller than African lions. They are 6.6 to 9.2 feet (2 to 2.8 m) long from head to tail and weigh between 242 to 418 pounds (110 to 190 kg), according to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). 

Lions tend to have loose skin hanging from their midsection, possibly to help protect them from the piercing hooves of their frantic prey. Asiatic lions also have a fold of skin that runs along their belly, a feature rarely seen in African lions, according to African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT), a research and conservation organization. Compared to African lions, Asiatic lions tend to have shaggier coats, longer hair tufts on their elbows, and a longer tassel on the end of their tail. [Photos: The Biggest Lions on Earth]

Not only are male lions generally larger than females, but they also have a distinctive thick mane of hair around their heads that females lack. The biggest and most fabulous manes are more impressive to mating females and more intimidating to competing males, according to the San Diego Zoo. The mane also protects the male's neck during fights over territory or mating rights. African lions tend to have bigger, more magnificent manes compared to their Asiatic cousins.

Cecil, a famous male lion, and his pride in Hwange National Park in November 2012. Mature male lions like Cecil are larger than females and have a magnificent mane of hair. 

(Image credit: paula french/Shutterstock)

Where do lions live?

African lions live in Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Male lions defend the pride’s territory, which may include an area of 100 square miles (259 square kilometers) of shrubs, grasslands and open woodlands, according to National Geographic

Asiatic lions are found only in the Indian state of Gujarat, Western India, where most reside in the protected Gir Forest National Park, a 545-square-mile (1,412-square-km) wildlife haven. The Indian government designated this land, which includes a deciduous forest, grasslands, scrub jungle and rocky hills, as a wildlife sanctuary in 1965, according to Gir National Park. In addition to more than 500 lions and 300 leopards, the park is home to deer, antelope, jackal, hyenas, foxes, reptiles and more than 200 species of birds.

Lion pride dynamics

Lions are social cats and live in groups called prides. Asiatic and African lion prides are very different, though.

African lion prides typically consist of up to three adult males and around a dozen females and their young, according to National Geographic. Some prides can get extremely large, however, with up to 40 members. Females tend to remain in the pride in which they are born, so they are usually related to each other. Males, on the other hand, wander off to create their own pride when they are old enough.

Asiatic male lions normally won't live with the females of their pride unless they’re mating or have a large kill, according to the Zoological Society of London.

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Beautiful Lion Caesar in the golden grass of Masai Mara, Kenya

African male lions compete with other males to take control of a pride of females.
(Image credit: Maggy Meyer/Shutterstock)
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Young Asiatic lion in India.

A young Asiatic lion on the prowl. Asiatic lions are only found in western India.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)
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Lion pride in Tanzania.

Lion prides may include up to 40 lions, but most prides consist of around 10 - 20 individuals.
(Image credit: Kjetil Kolbjornsrud/Shutterstock)
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Lion pride bringing down a buffalo.

Female lions will work cooperatively to hunt and kill large prey.
(Image credit: Jez Bennet/Shutterstock)
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Lions are social cats.

Lions are the only truly social cats.
(Image credit: Martin Prochazkacz/Shutterstock)

Hunting

African lions tend to hunt large animals such as antelopes, zebras, hogs, rhinos, hippos and wildebeest. Asiatic lions also hunt large animals, including buffaloes, goats, nilgai (a large Asian antelope), chital and sambar (two types of deer). Lions can kill animals that weigh up to 1,000 pounds, according to the Smithsonian National Zoo, but they will also hunt smaller animals like mice and birds when opportunities arise. 

Females are the main hunters of the pride, and work cooperatively in hunting parties to surround and take down prey. Lions can run up to 50 mph (80 kmph) for short distances and leap as far as 36 feet (11 m), almost the length of a school bus, according to the Lion Habitat Ranch, a lion sanctuary in Nevada. To bring prey down, lions jump on the backs of very large animals, but will "ankle-tap" smaller animals, meaning they reach out their paw and swipe the preys' legs to trip them up, according to ALERT. To kill their prey, lions use their powerful jaws to snap the animal's neck or to strangle it to death.

Very occasionally, males will join in the hunting action, particularly if the prey is extremely large, like an elephant or water buffalo. Otherwise, the main job of the male is to protect the pride. African males who live alone tend to hide in dense vegetation to engage in ambush-style hunting, according to Carnegie researchers. 

Lions tend to hunt at night and often lurk around water holes, streams and rivers, as those areas are hotspots for prey. Lions will also scavenge, and won't hesitate to steal other predators' kills or eat the leftovers, according to ALERT.

Mating and raising young

Male lions reach sexual maturity around two years old but are unlikely to breed before the age of 4 or 5 when they are large enough to attempt to take over a pride and have breeding rights, according to ALERT. Males as old as 16 can still produce viable sperm but usually lose their mating rights once they can no longer fight off younger males. Male African lions that are trying to take over a pride will kill all of the cubs to avoid competition. [In Photos: A Lion's Life

Most female lions give birth by the time they are 4 years old. The gestation period for lions is around four months. Females will give birth to their young away from others, and will hide the cubs for the first six weeks of their lives. At birth, the cubs only weigh around 2 to 4 pounds. (0.9 to 1.8 kg), according to Animal Corner, and they're completely dependent on their mother.

All of the females in a pride will mate at around the same time. After the first six weeks of rearing cubs alone, the mother and cubs will rejoin the pride. Other females in the pride will contribute to raising all of their pride's young, and will even nurse other mothers' cubs, according to the San Diego Zoo

Mother lions will rear their cubs alone for the first six weeks of their lives, before rejoining her pride and getting help caring for her young from other adult females. 

(Image credit: Theodore Mattas/Shutterstock)

Conservation status

Lions are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species. Three-quarters of African lion populations are in decline; their current population is estimated at 20,000 in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). The population has been almost cut in half in the past two decades because of retaliatory killings by farmers (whose livestock lions eat), as well as from trophy hunting and habitat loss. 

Asiatic lions are in an even more perilous position as human encroachment has reduced their habitat. The most recent census, taken in 2015, counted 523 lions living in Gir Forest National Park, according to PBS.org. Although small, this number is welcome news as the population has grown by about 27% since 2010, which suggests conservation measures are having a positive effect.

Additional resources: 

This article was updated on Aug. 19, 2019 by Live Science contributor Traci Pedersen.