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The lion

7 November 2013

 

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The modern cats, sabre-toothed cats, hyaenas, civets and mongooses all originated some 52 million years ago from a common ancestor. The scientific name Panthera leo of the lion is derived from the Greek word for a panther and the Latin word for a lion. The extinct lion Panthera leo afrox of North America and Siberia was the largest type of cat known and lived until 11 500 years ago at a time when North America had already been colonized by early humans. It stood 1.7 m at the shoulder and weighed some 363 kg. The oldest fossil lions in Africa have been found at the Zallah Oasis in Libya. Lions were important in the mythology of ancient Egypt.

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The lion was originally described scientifically in 1758 as  Felis leo by Linnaeus based on a specimen that was collected at  Constantin in Algeria, but the name Panthera was coined by Oken in 1816 to differentiate the roaring cats from the hissing cats of the genus Felis. Lions formerly occurred widely in Europe and Asia and the lions of Africa are all regarded as members of the subspecies Panthera leo leo. The only other subspecies of living lion is the Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica which still occurs as a limited population in the Gir National Park in India. The Asiatic lion differs from that of Africa in having a longitudinally extended flap of skin on the belly, weighs less and is smaller than the African lion. The African lion occurs in the entire Africa south of the Sahara Desert, except for the tropical forests of West Africa, and has already become extinct in North Africa. It uses a diversity of habitat types but usually does not occur in forests. It penetrates deserts along river valleys but abundant prey is a necessity.

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An adult male lion in South Africa weighs a mean of 190 kg and has a mean  shoulder height of 1.25 m as opposed to 126 kg and 1.07 m in an adult female. However, an adult male in the Kruger national Park weighed 225 kg and one that weighed 272 kg was shot on Mount Kenya.  The recurved canine teeth can be up to 6 cm long and the tail has a horn tip and dark tuft. The carnassial teeth are used to tear chunks of meat off the prey while the outer canines are used to hold and kill prey.  Environmental factors influence the colour and size of a lion, but the presence, colour and size of the mane in a male is determined genetically. Most lions are sandy yellow to yellow-brown in colour, and yellow and black manes are common. White lions develop as a result of a genetic mutation of an autosomal recessive gene. The long whiskers develop from black spots on the upper lip and the pattern of these spots differs between individuals. The cubs have dark rosettes which may flow into each other to form stripes.

It penetrates deserts along river valleys but abundant prey is a necessity. The lion is the only type of wild cat that forms prides of up to 37 animals but the size of a pride depends on the density of prey. Moreover, larger prides may split up into smaller ones during times of drought. The ranges of lion prides may overlap at times and also increase in size when prey becomes less abundant. Nevertheless, the a pride can occupy the same range for many years.

Lions are especially active just after sunset and a few hours before sunrise, but they also do move around in the day and will rest in shade when it is hot. They will climb into trees among other reasons to escape from biting flies and at times from harassment by a large pack of spotted hyaenas. A pride retains its structure for many years but may change it when the density and distribution of its prey change. A lion move further on a long, cool winter night than in the short, warmer summer one and can move up to 47 km per night. The adult males roar especially around sunset to communicate.

Males become sexually mature when they become 26 months old, but they only start to breed when they take over a pride at an age of some four years. Females become sexually mature when they are 32 months old and can reproduce up to the age of 19 years. Nevertheless, a female’s fecundity starts to decrease from an age of 11 years and is influenced by nutrition. Mating occurs throughout the year but most of the cubs are born at the time when a lion’s major prey give birth. Oestrus lasts for four days and repeats every 16 days. Either sex will initiate mating in which the pride male usually participates. During an intricate mating ritual, copulation with little aggression can occur at intervals of 15 minutes over several hours, although only some 30 percent of the mating events end in fertilization. When a strange male takes a pride, he often kills all the cubs in the pride within a month and all the females then ovulate in synchrony.

www.leopard.tvGestation lasts 102 to 115 days and a female gives birth to three to four cubs (maximum six) weighing 1.5 kg each in isolation from the pride. The mother stays away from the pride until the cubs are four to eight weeks old. Some of the cubs open their eyes two weeks after birth but some are born with their eyes open. A cub will suckle from any lactating female but only some 50 per cent of the cubs survive in the wild, especially when prey is less abundant. A young lion starts to hunt when it weighs 50 kg and can subdue prey, but will only start to hunt independently from an age of 15 to 16 months. It can only survive alone once it is two years old.  Young males and sometimes females leave the natal pride when they become 30 months old, and an adult male is vital for the survival of a pride.

The African lion is an opportunistic hunter of prey that mainly weigh from 50 to 300 kg. Not all the members of a pride participate in every hunt because the larger the hunting group the less food there is per individual. A lion will jump on to the back of its prey to make it fall and then usually throttles its prey.  Hunting success does not exceed 23 per cent and lions will also rob other large carnivores of their prey. Spotted hyaenas rob a pride of its prey when the pride does not include a large male lion, or when there are fewer than four females in the pride. The prey is eaten at the kill site or it is dragged into suitable shade. The stomach is ripped open first, the carcass is disembowelled and is often covered in sand to confuse scavengers. An adult male requires 8.3 kg of meat per day and a female 5.1 kg, but a lion can eat as much as 14 kg of meat at a time. Lions are independent of water but will drink water every day when it is available, especially following feeding.

Lions for re-establishment should come from a region free of bovine tuberculosis and there must be sufficient prey on the property. The males or the females should be sterilized as it does not influence the social behaviour of a lion.

 

References:

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

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

Wozencraft, W C 2005. Order Carnivora. In D E Wilson & D M Reeder (Eds), Mammal species of the world – a taxonomic and geographic reference, third edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp 546 - 547.

artikel by: Prof J du P Bothma

 

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