Ever since it was released in June 1994, Disney’s film The Lion King has immediately become almost everyone’s favourite. Most people loved the remarkable, yet tragic, story of Simba. In fact, that story is thought to have been inspired by Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
However, many, many people also fell in love with the phenomenal soundtrack of the film as well as its perfect portrayal of mother Africa. The film also gave a glimpse of life in the wild and how everything in the ecosystem is strongly connected.
Since humans settled on Earth and started to explore and get along with nature, they have thought of the lion as a symbol of strength and majesty. They considered it the king of the jungle; the one animal with dominance over all others.
But one cannot help but ask a question: why is this the case? Why is the lion, and not any other big cat such as the cheetah, the jaguar, or the tiger, the king of the jungle? All those cats and many others are apex predators. That simply means they are at the top of the food chain. In other words, they can eat other animals but no animal can eat them.
Well, it surely was not by luck. The lion has earned himself the title ‘King of the Jungle’ by his own potent aptitudes. While other big cats are still superior, it is only the lion that possesses kingship abilities. The lion is able to show dominance over other lions as well as all other animals too. He shows his physical strength through hunting and fighting and his loud, intimidating roar.
Accordingly, other animals have implicitly understood that the lion is the leader; the king. They might not bow when his cub is born like in the film, but they are surely fearful of him.
And just like Mufasa was teaching Simba about how everything ‘exists together in a delicate balance’, we are going to teach you today about the lion and how he is a critical part of this delicate balance of the ecosystem.
So let’s hop into it.
The lion is exactly like an enlarged domestic cat, but with a mane and a yellow-gold fur coat that does not come in other colours like those of small cats. The lion is also way wilder, predatory, and seems to have longer, sharper teeth. Besides, he has got a tuft at the end of his tail. Other than that, lions and domestic cats are almost the same.
The lion is native to most of Africa and solely India. The earliest fossils of the lion were found in Tanzania in Africa. They dated back to around 1.5 million years ago.
That said, the lion used to be found in southeast Europe as well as western Asia. But at some point in time, the lion population has become limited to India and Sub-Saharan Africa—this is the part of Africa that is located south of the Sahara Desert.
Around 80% of the lion population is found in eastern and western African countries such as Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Three-fifths of the total population of the lion in Africa is found In Tanzania alone.
Despite those large percentages, the number of lions in Africa is decreasing dramatically, dropping by 43% in the last 26 years. More precisely, there are roughly 20,000 lions left. This got the lion listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That means lions are threatened and can potentially go extinct unless the dangers they encounter are eliminated and their habitat is conserved.
Now to the question: is there only one ‘type’ of lions out there? Well, yes.
In total, there are 334 monkey species on Earth. Species refer to animals that are much more different than alike; that they cannot interbreed. For instance, a male Japanese macaque and a female mandrill—these are two different species of monkeys—cannot interbreed. Likewise, tigers and lions are two different species despite descending from the same cat ancestor.
That said, there are only one species of lions out there. But it is further classified into two subspecies. Yes, you guessed it. There is the African lion called Panthera Leo Leo and the Asiatic lion called Panthera Leo Persica.
Like the African and Asian elephants, the main differences between these two continental lion subspecies are also physical. Asiatic lions are a little smaller than African ones. In addition, the Asiatic lion’s mane is also shorter and less dense than that of the African lion.
Since the differences between these two lion subspecies are so small, both subspecies can then interbreed and produce offspring that look almost the same as both of them.
Yet, none of them can naturally interbreed with other different, big cat species while in the wild. But with human interference, such a thing was made possible.
Either for the sake of curiosity or scientific research, lions were bred with tigers and leopards. The result of a male lion mating with a female tiger is called a liger. This liger hybrid is bigger than both the lion and the tigress. On the other hand, the offspring of a male tiger and a female lion is a tigon. Interestingly, the tigon is smaller than both his parents. Similarly, a leopon is the result of breeding a male leopard with a female lion.
Like many animals, but still unlike most other big and small cats, there are apparent differences between male and female lions. First, their names. A male lion is called, yes, a lion and a female is called a lioness. Their babies are called cubs.
Both the lion and the lioness possess strong muscular bodies with large chests and rounded heads and ears. Their strong bodies are covered with yellow-golden, short-haired fur coats and their tails are ending with hairy, dark tufts.
Interestingly, cubs are not born with tufts and they usually have dark spots on their bodies. Male cubs do not also have manes at birth. As cubs grow older, their tail tufts grow, their dark spots fade and eventually disappear, and males develop fluffy manes.
Speaking of size, lions are larger than lionesses. A male lion is usually 184 to 28 cm in body length and its tail ranges between 83 and 93 cm long. On the other hand, a female lion has a total body length (tail excluded) of around 160 to 185 cm as well as a tail of 72 to 90 cm.
When it comes to weight, lions from different regions seem to weigh differently. For instance, the South African lion is the largest of the African lion subspecies with a weight ranging from 118 to 144 kg. In India, the maximum lion weight is 120 kg. Similarly, South African lionesses have a weight of 225 kg at maximum while Indian lionesses are a lot smaller. They weigh between 160 and 190 kg.
Since the elephant is identified by its muscular trunk, the giraffe by its long neck, and the owl by its ability to turn its head 270°, the male lion is recognised for its thick, fluffy mane.
Yet, that was not always the case. According to scientists, the lions that existed on Earth around two million years ago did not have manes. Manes started to develop in lions only 320,000-190,000 years ago.
Manes can have a range of closely related colours; from yellow to dark brown. These colours depend on many factors, one of which is the weather. The lower the temperature, the darker and heavier the mane becomes, and vice versa.
In European zoos, lions tend to have denser manes while in some African national parks, almost all lions have either short manes or no manes at all. Maturity also plays a part in the colour and how thick the mane is. But all in all, a dark, dense, full mane mostly refers to a healthy lion.
Differences between males and females also extend to their lifespans. In the wild, females live between 15 and 16 years while males die much younger, possibly at the age of eight and up to 10 years old.
That said, one lion and two sister lionesses reached the age of 22 years old. They all died in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
As we have seen before in other articles about animals, there are white tigers and white kangaroos. Both are resulting from a rare genetic mutation called leucism. Leucism causes the melanin levels in animals to drop significantly. And melanin is the pigmentation that causes the skin, hair, and eye irises to be dark.
Leucism also occurs in lions. It results in beautiful, snow-white or creamy lions—white lion cubs are the cutest!
White lions are only found in Africa, more precisely in Timbavati Private Nature Reserve in South Africa. Interestingly, Timbavati is a word from the ancient African language Tsonga. It refers to a place where something sacred exists, referring to the rare white lions.
As we mentioned earlier, lions are apex predators. They eat many other animals but no animals eat them. In other words, they eat meat.
Around two-thirds of the lion’s diet is meat. It usually comes from a variety of mammals with hooves. A male lion requires around 7 kg of meat per day while a female needs 5 kg daily on average to maintain good health.
One thing that shows the lion’s strength is his ability to take down large prey, usually heavier than him and sometimes even double his size. Some of the lion’s favourite prey includes zebras, antelopes, common wildebeest, giraffes, and common warthogs. Indian lions like to feed on deers as well.
Lions also sometimes eat the flesh of dead animals. This is called carrion. They know there is carrion nearby when they see a vulture circulating in the sky.
When lions succeed at catching prey, they consume it in the same location where they killed it. But if there are some threats from other predators attacking or stealing the food, lions tend to take cover with it.
If the lion is full before the food is over, he takes a break, rests for some time, and then continues to eat until he is done with it all. When prey is large, more lions are invited to share it.
Lions rarely, if not never, try to prey on fully-grown elephants and hippos. Though it is the king of the jungle and a keystone predator, the lion knows perfectly that the elephant’s large legs, muscular trunk, and sharp, curved tusks can severely wound and even kill him.
As a result, the lion usually avoids such big animals. However, when lions cooperate, as we will see later on, they can hunt and take down elephant calves and juveniles; usually, those that drift away from their herds.
Lions and other predators
On the other hand, lions do not always attack animals to eat them but to reduce competition over food. That is why lions sometimes get in fights with other predators such as cheetahs and leopards. They even steal their catch. Other times, lions may kill those predators to protect food.
Such fights show the lion’s dominance over other predators. In fact, cheetahs usually prefer to avoid competition with lions. Despite being strong and predatory, cheetahs sometimes hide in trees too.
Like we have seen in The Lion King, there is some kind of enmity between lions and hyenas—God! I hate them. Both predators were seen to attack each other for no apparent reason. In this short video by BBC Earth, an old lion was attacked by a clan of hyenas. He was so close to falling victim but a friend of his popped up out of nowhere and saved him. Although the video might feel disturbing for some, the thank-you snuggle the old lion had with his rescuer at the end is so incredibly heartwarming.
Despite how cowardly they seemed to be in the film, hyenas are quite bold. They look like they often challenge lions by hunting alongside them despite being quite fearful of them.
And like the hyenas in the film tried to kill Simba and Nala, hyenas in real life usually try to kill lion cubs. That is why lions attack hyenas back and kill them. In fact, lions are responsible for more than 70% of the hyena deaths reported in Etosha National Park in Namibia.
Interestingly, it seems like living in the wild alongside lions might have given hyenas some courage to face them. On the other hand, hyenas kept in captivity that had no prior contact with lions feel afraid when they smell a lion’s scent.
Lions and lionesses are mature enough and able to breed when they are five and four years old respectively. Though some animals breed at specific times, lions can mate at any time of the year.
A female stays pregnant for three and a half months on average. Then, she gives birth to one and up to four cubs at a time. Before labour, the lioness usually establishes a den, or house, for her upcoming offspring. She usually chooses a covered and safe area, for instance, a cave.
Lion cubs, like domestic kittens, are born blind. They open their eyes only after a week of birth. Their bodies weigh around 1.65 kg on average. They are so weak that they can only crawl but not walk. After nursing some rich nutritious milk from their mother, cubs are able to walk at the age of three weeks.
The lioness is the one who takes full responsibility for bringing up her cubs. She is also highly protective of them. For example, she moves them to a new den many times every month to avoid predators knowing about her cubs from their scent.
At around two to three months of age, cubs can start consuming meat. However, they do not stop nursing until they are six months old. When cubs become a year old, they start to participate in hunting. When they turn two, they can go on successful hunts.
If you have ever had a fully-grown domestic cat, you must be familiar with its daily activity pattern: almost no activity at all. Cats are lazy animals by nature. They rest and lay down all day long. They never seem to get up except to eat or answer nature’s call.
But sometimes, cats get very short peeks of activity that make them run across the house all of a sudden. Most of the time, cats sleep all day and become active at night. Well, that is the same case with lions.
In most videos of lions in the wild taken during the day, lions always appear resting, laying down, and enjoying doing absolutely nothing. However, when night falls, their behaviour becomes completely different. From dusk till dawn, lions get intermittent periods of activity during which they go on organised hunts.
As we have seen in several articles on animals, many species have a social structure that they live by. Some of those structures are simple and easy to grasp such as that of elephants or giraffes. Others are quite complicated like the monkeys’ societies.
Lions have some kind of female-based social structure called pride. A lion’s pride mainly consists of related lionesses up to 12 and their offspring in addition to a few males. Sometimes, prides can have as many as 30 members. Since females form the main unit of the pride, they do not accept other females into their prides.
Females are responsible for hunting and taking care of their cubs while males rest in the shadows. When they are not resting, males are in charge of defending the territory, the area which they decided is their home. They also protect their cubs from other predators.
When male cubs reach the age of three or five years, they either abandon or get expelled from their pride to go and establish their own prides. Oftentimes, this happens by hijacking other prides. The invading lions fight with other prides’ males to become the leaders. This grants them the right to mate with the pride females.
To show their dominance, those new males often kill the existing cubs of the new pride they just took over. That is because their moms, the lionesses, are not able to breed until their cubs become either mature or dead.
On the other hand, female cubs mostly stay in their birth pride for life. Yet, there are two occasions on which lionesses leave the pride. First, when they give birth to cubs. As we mentioned earlier, females build multiple special dens for their cubs and stay with them for around three weeks until they are old enough to walk. Then, both the females and the cubs return to the pride.
Females may also be expelled from their prides if they get too old and weak. If a female showed any aggressive behaviour towards other pride females or their cubs or tried to kill them, she would also be exiled.
Males within the pride are all strong and healthy up until ten years of age. After that, they start to age and weaken. Once they show little to no ability to support their prides or take care of cubs, they get kicked out of the group.
What can we say? Life is just cruel.
Most animals communicate with distinct voices. Cats meow. Dogs bark. Wolves howl. And lions roar.
A lion’s roar is more of a signal loaded with information than it is an aggressive yawn. Like wolves, lions often roar to tell other pride members about their location. A roar can also be a call for help to bring down large prey or a message that a meal is ready for consumption. On other occasions, the roar can be an alert to the pride that some danger is approaching.
A lion’s roar is strong and deafening. It can be heard from long distances, up to 8 km away. Besides, it measures 114 dB on the sound level. This is considered pretty noisy since the safe noise level humans can hear and not get hearing damage is 70 dB at maximum!
Roar is also a sign of power. Since the lion is the king of the jungle, he has got to show some toughness! So he uses his roar to scare other animals, especially hyenas. It is like he directly tells them not to cross their lines or enter his territory. By keeping intruders away, the lion protects his cubs.
Interestingly, it is not only male lions who can roar. Lionesses can roar too. However, the female roar is not as powerful as that of a male. And speaking of other big cats, only tigers, leopards, and jaguars can roar. On the other hand, cheetahs and snow leopards cannot roar. But both of them can meow and purr, just like cute, little domestic cats.
Interestingly, lions respond to other lions’ roaring. For instance, if a lion hears a roar from a rival lion of a different pride, he roars back at him. This may develop into both lions engaging in a fight to defend their territories and stop each other from taking over their prides.
Since lions are most active at night, they also roar at night.
Lion cubs start to try roaring at around three months of age. That said, they are never really able to roar as powerfully as a full-grown lion unless they are 1.5 or 2 years old.
The lion is an exceptional creature. And why not? Is he not the king of the jungle?
In this article, we demonstrated some interesting information about the lion: where he is from, what he looks like, and how male and female lions are physically and behaviourally different. We have also learned about white lions. They are resultant from a rare genetic mutation called leucism.
We explored the lion’s diet and when and how he goes for hunts. Then, we moved to mating and the production of new lion cubs. Lion cubs are born completely helpless, unable to see or walk. Yet, they develop great abilities by the age of three and four months old. Some of these abilities are eating meat, participating in hunts, and beginning to roar.
And we ended with roaring; that very special, deep sound lions make to communicate with other members of the pride. They also use that sound to protect their territory and threaten intruders with harsh consequences if they ever tried to come in. All of this is possible because the roar is very powerful. It is as loud as 114 dB and can be heard at a distance of 8 km away.
And so we reach the end of today’s lesson. We hope you enjoyed reading about lions as much as we loved writing about them. Now it is your turn to tell us about lions. Have you seen them before in real life? Was it in a zoo or a national park? Or maybe you saw them in a circus? Do you like the lion in the first place? Do you think he is really the king of the jungle?
Tell us in the comments.
If you enjoyed learning about this facinating animal why not check out more fantastic facts about other animals: Koalas, Ostriches, Land Animals, Sharks, Raccoons, Moon and Sun Bears, Rats, Sheep, Chickens, Cats, Pandas, Monkeys and Whales.
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