The lion (Panthera leo) is a mammal of the family Felidae and one of four “big cats” in the genus Panthera. The lion is the second largest cat, after the tiger. The male lion, easily recognized by his mane, weighs between 330 to 550 lb (150 to 250 kg). Females range 260 to 330 lb (120 to 150 kg). In the wild, lions live for around 10 to 14 years, while in captivity they can live over 20 years. Though they were once found throughout much of Africa, Asia and Europe, lions presently exist in the wild only in Africa and India.

Diet and hunting

Lions usually hunt at night or dawn. Their prey consists mainly of large mammals, such as antelopes, gazelles, warthogs, wildebeest, buffalos and zebras. Sometimes, smaller animals like hares and birds are also taken occasionally. Their diet consists of only about 20 different species. Carrion is readily taken and often recovered from other predators like hyenas and wild dogs. In some areas lions specialize on rather atypical prey-species. It is reported that the lions, driven by extreme hunger, started taking down baby elephants. They then moved on to adolescents and occasionally fully-grown adults.

Young lions first try hunting at three months old, but are often not successful hunters until they are two years old.

Lions can reach speeds of about 37 mph (60 km/h), but they don’t have the endurance to be long-distance runners. They have to come quite close to their prey before starting the attack. They sneak up to the victim until they reach a distance of about 98 feet (30 m) or less. Usually several lions work together and encircle the herd from different points. The attack is short and powerful and the lion tries to catch the victim with a fast rush and some final leaps. The prey is usually killed by a bite into the nape or throat.

Lions hunt in open spaces and are easily seen by their prey. Teamwork increases the likelihood of a successful hunt. Teamwork also enables them to defend their prey more easily against other large predators like hyenas, which can be attracted by vultures over miles in open land. The males do not usually participate in hunting, except in the case of large animals such as buffalo.

An adult female lion needs about 11 lbs (5 kg) meat per day, a male cat 15 lbs (7 kg).

Social behavior

Lions are predatory carnivores that manifest two types of social organization. Some are residents, living in groups, called prides. The pride consists of related females, their cubs of both sexes, and a group of one to four males known as a coalition who mate with the adult females. Others are nomads, ranging widely, either singly or in pairs.

Being smaller and lighter than males, lionesses are more agile and faster. They do the pride’s hunting, while the stronger males patrol the territory and protect the pride. They take the “lion’s share” of the females’ prey. When resting, lions seem to enjoy good fellowship with lots of touching, head rubbing, licking and purring. But when it comes to food, each lion looks out for itself. Squabbling and fighting are common, with adult males usually eating first, followed by the females and then the cubs.

Both males and females will defend the pride against intruders. Some individual lions consistently lead the defense against intruders, while other lag behind. Leaders do not punish these “laggards”. Possibly laggards provide other services to the group so that leaders forgive them. An alternative hypothesis is that there is some reward associated with being a leader who fends off intruders.

Typically, males will not tolerate outside males. The females will not tolerate outside females. Males are expelled from the pride or leave on their own when they reach maturity.

Lions spend a lot of their time resting. They are inactive for about 20 hours per day.

Reproduction and sexuality

Lions do not have a specific time of year where they mate and the females are polyestrous. During a mating bout, which could last several days, the couple frequently copulates twenty to forty times a day. They are likely to forgo hunting. At times the female may couple with other males in the pride, giving rise to the possibility of different cubs in the same litter having different fathers. In captivity, lions reproduce very well.

The pregnancy lasts between one hundred and one hundred twenty days, and the female gives birth to a litter of one to four cubs. The females in a pride will synchronize their reproductive cycles so that they cooperate in the raising and suckling of the young. Cubs are weaned after six to seven months. In the wild, competition for food is fierce, and as many as 80% of the cubs will die before the age of two.

When a new male takes over a pride and ousts the previous master(s), the conquerors often kill any remaining cubs. This is explained by the fact that the females would not become fertile and receptive until the cubs grow up or die. The male lions reach maturity at about 3 years of age and are capable of taking over another pride at 4 to 5 years old. They begin to age (and thus weaken) at around 8. This leaves a short window for their offspring to be born and mature. The fathers have to procreate as soon as they take over the pride. Sometimes a female may defend her and the ousted male’s children from the new master, but such actions are rarely successful. He usually kills all the previous top male’s cubs that are less than two years old.

Observers have reported that both males and females may interact with each other. Male lions pair bond for a number of days and initiate affectionate nuzzling and caressing. Lionesses form matriarchal bonding since they are the hunters in the pride. Their interaction is significant as they team together for hunting excursions and for general companionship.

Physical characteristics

The male lion, easily recognized by his mane, can weigh from 330 to 500 (150 to 225 kg). Usually most males average around 410 lb (186 kg) and females range from 260 to 330 lb (120 to 150 kg). This is an average around 275 lb (125 kg). Head and body length is 67 to 98 in (170 to 250 cm) in males and 55 to 69 (140 to 175 cm) in females. The shoulder height is about 48 in (123 cm) in males and 39 in (100 cm) in females. The tail length is 28 to 39 (70 to 100 cm). In the wild, lions live for around 10 to 14 years, while in captivity they can live over 20 years.

The coloration varies from light buff to yellowish, reddish or dark brown. The under parts are generally brighter and the hairy tuft at the tip of the tail is black. The color of the manes varies from blond to black.


The first lions are presumed to have been mane less. Until around 10,000 years ago, mane less forms seem to have persisted in Europe, and possibly the New World. The manned form may have appeared 320,000 to190, 000 years ago. This manned form may have had a selective advantage that enabled it to expand to replace the range of earlier mane less form throughout Africa and western Eurasia by historic times. The mane has evolved due to sexually selective pressure driving the trait to an exaggerated point where it no longer serves any other function. The trait has reached the point where cost of maintaining the mane has begun to outweigh its benefits. In fact, lions with particularly large manes often have trouble with thermoregulation.

In the past scientists believed that the “distinct” sub specific status of some subspecies could be justified by their external morphology, like the size of their mane. This morphology was used to identify them, like the Barbary lion and cape lion. However, now it is known that various extrinsic factors influence the color and size of a lion’s mane, like the ambient temperature. The cooler ambient temperature in European and North American zoos can result in heavy mane. Therefore, the heavy mane is an inappropriate marker for identifying subspecies.

Mane less lions have been reported in Senegal and Tsavo-National Park. As well as having an inherited component, the presence, absence and degree of mane is also associated with sexual maturity and testosterone production. Castrated lions have minimal manes. The original male white lion from Timbavati was also mane less. This is also found in inbred lion populations. Inbreeding also results in poor fertility. A heavy mane may provide an indicator of a lion’s genetic and physical health. It may also afford him some protection in fights. In some animal species, females show a preference for males with better outward displays of fertility and vigor. It is possible that lionesses more actively solicit mating with heavily manned lions in prides led by a coalition of 2 or 3 males, though there seem to be no published studies.