Lion (animal) – Concept, characteristics, habitat and food

We tell you all about the lions, where they live and how they reproduce. We also talk about the way they feed and their characteristics.

lion savanna africa
The lion is a feline that lives in Africa and India.

The lion

The lion (scientific name Panthera leo) is a large carnivorous feline. It is native to Sub-Saharan Africa and certain regions of India, where it is the largest predator in the food chain. It is one of the best known wild animals, feared by humans for its fierceness, but also admired and used as a symbol in literature and arts.

The ancestors of the lion showed up 4.1 to 5.9 million years ago. They were the source for all of the four species of the genus Panthera that we know today: the tiger, the jaguar, the lion and the leopard. These last two separated evolutionarily 1.25 million years ago. Lions, the way we know them today, arose in Africa between 1 million and 800,000 years ago.

During the Upper Pleistocene they spread throughout five continents, thus giving rise to the American lion (now extinct) and the puma, until the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. During the last ice age they became extinct in Europe, America and almost all of Asia.

Humanity had contact with lions since ancient times, and were seen as symbol of nobility, ferocity and masculinity. For this reason, they can be found in ancient stories, on country flags, on family coat of arms, and even as a symbol of St. Mark, the author of one of the four gospels in the New Testament.

Despite the fame, and their legendary power as predators, lions are among the most vulnerable and susceptible to extinction species. Only during the last decades their populations suffered a 30-50%, with difficult perspectives of life outside the delimited wild reserves.

The loss of habitat and conflicts with human populations are partly responsible for this phenomenon. Several zoologists around the world work together now, and try to increase their numbers in captivity.

Characteristics of lions

lion herd young felineLions are sociable and often live in packs.

Like all cats, lions they are quadrupeds and mammals. They have a long tail, a short and yellowish coat, as well as a blonde or dark mane around the neck in the case of males. With an exclusive carnivorous diet, they are fierce hunters, capable of holding the prey with their claws and ripping large chunks of meat with their sharp fangs.

Together with tigers, they are the largest felines in existence: they can measure about 2 to 3 meters (males) or 1.80 to 2.7 meters (females) in length, and reach a weight of 160 to 260 kg (males) or 120 to 180 kg (females).

On the other hand, lion’s temperament is rather sleepy, dedicating about 20 hours a day to rest and inactivity. Lions tend to socialize at sunset and hunt during the night, spending about two hours a day walking and about 50 minutes a day eating.

Unlike the rest of the felines, lions are quite sociable creatures, and they usually form herds. Females with some family bond and a smaller number of males are traditionally joined together with the cubs. It is common to see them offering affection to each other by licking and rubbing. For the dominant male it is commmon to marking his territory, and using intimidating roars in order to scare the potential intruders.

Where do lions live?

Lions used to be a very widespread species in Africa and Middle East, as well as the Indian subcontinent. Nowadays, however, it is known that wild lions inhabit limited restricted regions of southeastern and central Africa, as well as a very specific region in the northwestern part of India.

They prefer grasslands and savannas, rarely entering wooden regions.

What do lions eat?

carnivore lion feeding predator predator preyLions are predatory carnivores and tend to hunt large mammals.

They are eminently carnivorous creatures, the great hunters of the African plains. The hunt takes place through coordinated herd attacks, trying to isolate and besiege the prey as quickly as possible. They do not possess a particularly high speeds, as the cheetah, nor physical endurance, like wolves. In fact, they can reach speeds of up to 60 kmph, but only over short distances.

Their favorite prey are usually large mammals – Young wildebeests, buffalos, impalas, zebras, wild boars, deers or giraffes, and even seals, along Namibia’s coast. If they live nearby farms with livestock, it is likely that they will also “steal” animals from time to time.

The hunt is organized by sex: females hunt together, with occasional help from the males, but the product of this hunt will be for them and for the young; males tend to hunt for the food on their own.

Lions are not prone to cannibalism like other felines, but isolated events are possible. Generally speaking, lions have much more to fear humans than any other threat.

How do lions breed?

baby white lions - newbornTwo white lion cubs, South Africa.

Lions, like all mammals, reproduce sexually, and are viviparous. After the gestation period, a female can give birth to 1-4 young in a den isolated from the rest of the herd. Females have several estrous periods per year, during which they can mate with several lions. The gestation takes 110 days on average.

When the young are old enough, the females rejoin the herd. There, the cubs play and learn to hunt and take their place in the social hierarchy. After reaching adulthood, many of the full-grown males are driven out by the herd to seek territory of their own.

How long do lions live?

Lions have relatively short lives. In ideal conditions and in a protected environment, such as National Parks, a lioness can reach 12 to 14 years of age, while males rarely exceed 8. However, particularly long-living lionesses are known to have reached almost 20 years in the wild.