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What is a Lion?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 21, 2024
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The lion (Panthera leo) is the second-largest big cat, smaller only than the tiger. In the wild, an adult male can weigh up to 500 lbs and lives 10-14 years. The North American mountain lion is a completely separate species, and not a true lion.

There are eight recognized sub-species of lion, two of which are extinct in the wild, and one of which, the Asiatic, is considered critically endangered. No more than 350 animals of this variety are thought to exist in the wild. The four African species are considerably more successful, with estimates of their population ranging between 16,500 to 47,000 animals. Yet while these numbers seem large, experts suggest that the population has dropped nearly 50% in the last two decades, leading the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources to list the species as vulnerable to extinction.

Lions live in two types of social group: Resident and Nomadic. In Resident populations, lions live in a pride consisting of several adult females and their cubs, and one or two adult males. Nomadic lions tend to live alone or in pairs, and travel over a much wider area without any particular home range. The male lion can switch between a Resident and Nomadic life, but female Resident lions have a strict hierarchy that generally will not admit a Nomad female into the pride.

The diet of adult lions is made up entirely of meat. As females are faster and more agile than males, pride lionesses work together to hunt for the entire group. The male will never share his own kills, but lionesses allow the males to join the feed after the females and the young have eaten their fill.

Pride females synchronize their reproductive cycles, so that when cubs are born, all females can nurture and nurse them. Cubs nurse for six to seven months before weaning. Experts suggest that competition for scarce food leads to a high cub death rate; in the wild, up to 80% of cubs die before reaching maturity. Another possible reason for the high mortality rate is a result of lion breeding behavior. If a new male takes over a pride, he will kill all of the cubs, ensuring that the females will become fertile.

The lion is often called “King of the Jungle” and figures prominently into many legends. In Greece, fighting the Nemean Lion was one of Hercules’ labors, and after its death the lion was put into the sky as the constellation Leo. Egyptians worshipped this constellation because its yearly rise in the sky coincided with the annual rising of the Nile. Egyptian and Greek mythology also mention the Sphinx, a half-lion, half-human monster said to speak in riddles and be both wise and dangerous.

As early as 850 BCE, lions have been kept in captivity. Alexander the Great was said to have been presented with tame lions as a gift. In England, there are records of lions being kept in the Tower of London as part of menageries from the 13th century onward. While once kept in cemented and heavily barred cages, modern enclosures are meant to mimic a natural wild habitat. Today, you may see lions for yourself in nearly every zoo in the world, as they remain an extremely popular and fascinating animal.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a lion and where can it be found in the wild?

Lions are large carnivorous felines known as 'Panthera leo', recognized for their muscular build, deep roar, and a mane on males. They predominantly inhabit the savannas and grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa, with a small population in India's Gir Forest. Lions are social animals, living in groups called prides.

How does the social structure of a lion pride work?

A lion pride consists of related females, their offspring, and a small number of adult males. Females typically remain in their natal pride for life, while males must leave and either live solitarily or form coalitions with other males. The pride's social structure is matriarchal, with females collaborating in hunting and cub-rearing.

What do lions typically eat and how do they hunt?

Lions are apex predators and primarily feed on large ungulates such as zebras, wildebeests, and antelopes. They employ cooperative hunting strategies to take down prey, with females doing most of the hunting. They utilize stealth and strength, often hunting in the early morning or evening to avoid the heat of the day.

Are lions at risk of extinction, and what are their main threats?

Lions are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with their populations decreasing due to habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching. Conservation efforts are crucial to protect their habitats and mitigate conflicts to ensure their survival.

How do lions communicate with each other?

Lions communicate through a variety of vocalizations, body language, and scent marking. Their roars can be heard up to 5 miles away, serving to proclaim territory and locate other pride members. Whisker spots and facial expressions convey mood and intent, while scent marks establish territorial boundaries.

What is the lifespan of a lion in the wild versus in captivity?

In the wild, lions live approximately 10-14 years, facing challenges like injuries from hunting, competition for food, and conflicts with humans or other lions. In captivity, without these stressors, they can live up to 20 years, benefiting from regular meals and veterinary care.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for AllThingsNature. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By CellMania — On Nov 09, 2010

@dill1971: Contrary to what we have thought in the past, recent studies on lions indicates that the male lions take part in about 50-60% of the hunts – primarily when they are needed to take down larger prey.

It has also been shown that lions are sneaky, as well. They have been known to attack hyenas to steal their kills.

The young male lions are kicked out of the pride when they start showing signs of maturity. They then become nomads, wandering around on their own, until they are strong and mature enough to take over a pride of their own.

By GrumpyGuppy — On Nov 09, 2010

@dill1971: Here is some more information for you about lions:

The male lion is the only cat with a mane. Scientists have been divided on the reason behind that. Lion cubs are born with spots on them that disappear with age. Lions feed on a variety of prey animals such as buffaloes, wildebeest, gazelles, and even some elephants.

Lions are not very friendly with fellow predators and will often kill them. Leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas are at the top of their hit list.

By dill1971 — On Nov 09, 2010

Very informative article. I need a little more specific information about lions for a project I'm doing on Africa. Thanks.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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