Lions were once common throughout most of Africa and in parts of Europe and Asia, and one ancient subspecies even lived in North America. Today, their range has been reduced to pockets of Africa below the Sahara Desert, and a small population in India. Lions are members of the genus Panthera, which are known informally as the “big cats”, and includes the tiger, jaguar, and the leopard. These large felines are the only members of the cat family that are able to roar, due to their specialized vocal chords. The snow leopard has also been recently classified in the Panthera genus, but it is rarely included in discussions of “big cats” due to its smaller size and lack of roaring capability.
Why do lions roar? These cats have a complicated social structure, traveling in groups called prides, and roaring is a way for them to communicate over long distances. They can be heard as far as five miles away! Lions often roar to establish their territory, letting enemy lions know the area is off limits, or reassuring other lions in the pride that everything in the territory is okay. Just by hearing a roar, a lion can tell if the source is male or female, as well as if it is friendly or hostile.
Among wild big cats, lions are second only to the tiger in size. They can reach over 550 pounds! Rather than patterned with stripes or spots like other big cats, lions are mostly yellow-brown in coloration, and they have a unique feature that no other living cats possess: a mane. The mane is a darker, shaggier area of fur surrounding the head and neck. It’s most commonly found on adult male lions, though occasionally they are not present in males and sometimes rarely appear on female lions.
Lions are entirely carnivorous, meaning they eat only meat. They hunt wildebeests, zebras, cape buffalo, Thompson’s gazelles and even giraffes. Female lions, called lionesses, do most of the hunting. After a successful hunt, food is shared among the rest of the pride, including the cubs and the older adult lions. In addition to hunting, more than half a lion’s diet may be composed of scavenged animals that died of natural causes or were killed by other animals, such as hyenas.
Lion population numbers are declining rapidly, largely due to human involvement. Habitat loss is one driving factor, as lions need large territories to roam in. They are also targeted by farmers because lions are known to eat livestock. In Asia, lions are restricted to the Gir Forest National Park in India. Though the forest is legally protected, lions are still poached or killed for being a nuisance. World Lion Day exists to help raise awareness of the issues faced by lions, and reinforce the importance of protecting this valuable predator species. Many groups and initiatives exist to help lions, including the World Wildlife Fund’s Adopt-A-Lion program, and the Association of Zoos & Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan. Through these and other efforts, humanity can help reverse the decline of these iconic creatures.
Bernie’s Bonus Fun Fact: In captivity, lions and tigers occasionally hybridize. The offspring of a male lion and female tiger is called a liger. They typically have faded stripes similar to tigers, with a light yellow-brown coat like a lion. They are the largest big cats alive today, growing larger than Siberian tigers!