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The morphology of the African lion

3 March 2014

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The lion Pantherea leo has been the largest terrestrial carnivore in Africa for many centuries, and is the only truly sociable cat. It developed fairly recently from the much larger cave lion which inhabited Europe until some 2100 years ago. Although lions were once spread widely and were often used by the Romans in their colosseums to fight gladiators and kill luckless prisoners, they mainly survive in Africa with a remnant population in southern India where they have developed some unique morphological changes and are also some 10 per cent smaller than in Africa. The most noticeable difference is a pronounced belly fold from the front to the hind legs in the Asiatic lion which rarely also occurs in the African one.

The coat of an adult African lion is unpatterned and varies from light tawny to silvery gray, yellowish red and dark brown, with the underparts generally paler and whitish. Especially some females can appear to be almost golden yellow. However, the young cubs have dark rosettes on the coat and these rosettes can fuse to form dark stripes in some cases. Subadult lions and adult females retain faded rosettes on the belly and this retention of atavistic rosettes indicates that the ancestors of the African lion once lived in more densely forested habitats. Black and albinistic coat colours... (Become a Green subscriber for more)

 

References:

Skinner, J D and C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 390 - 396.

Sunquist, M and F Sunquist 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp 285 - 304.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

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