Panthera leo: The King of the Beasts

Ye Yuan and Yue Long Chance Chan
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African lion

An African lion, Panthera leo, at the Okavango Delta, Botswana. © 2000 Greg and Marybeth Dimijian


A captive male lion at the Natonal Zoo. © 2008 Hannah Riedel

Found predominantly in Africa, lions are the largest felines in the world, and are often called the "King of the Beasts". Male lions are distinguishable from a considerable distance by their mane, which can be used as an indication of age, nutrition, and the climate of their habitat. Their large body mass provides an advantage in taking down prey, along with their powerful jaws and sharp claws.

Lions are social animals that hunt and live in groups called prides. The males have little parental investment toward the cubs, and males may even commit infanticide against suckling cubs that are not their own. There is usually fierce competition for food because successful hunts are rare and members of the pride tend to gorge themselves when food is available. The ruling male lion will eat his fill, and then the other males, females, and finally the cubs. The competition for food contributes to the high mortality rate of the cubs.


Lions belong to the genus Panthera which contains well known animals such as the tiger, leopard, and jaguar. Within the genus Panthera, the lion is further classifed as the species Panthera leo. The full scientific classification is as follows:

The following chart shows the different species in the genus Panthera as well as the 16 subspecies of Panthera leo.

Common Name Species Subspecies
(An extinct leopard) Panthera crassidens  
European jaguar Panthera gombaszoegensis  
Lion Panthera leo
  • Panthera leo atrox
  • Panthera leo azandica
  • Panthera leo europaea
  • Panthera leo fossilis
  • Panthera leo hollisteri
  • Panthera leo kamptzi
  • Panthera leo krugeri
  • Panthera leo leo
  • Panthera leo melanochaita
  • Panthera leo massaica
  • Panthera leo nyanzae
  • Panthera leo persica
  • Panthera leo sinhaleyus
  • Panthera leo spelaea
  • Panthera leo senegalensis
  • Panthera leo vereshchagini
Jaguar Panthera onca  
(An extinct cat)Panthera palaeosinensis  
(An extinct leopard)Panthera pardoides  
Panthera pardus  
(An extinct cat)Panthera schaubi  
(An extinct cat)Panthera schreuderi  
Tiger Panthera tigris  
Tuscany lion Panthera toscana  
(An extinct cat)
Panthera youngi  

Habitat and Behaviour

Lions live in a wide range of habitats including plains, grasslands, forests, and even semi-deserts. They can also live at high altitudes, with a population spotted living at an altitude of 4,240 m in Ethiopia.

Groups of lions, called prides, can range anywhere between 2 to 40 lions with the average being 13 lions. They are composed of both sexes with the males having more dominance. Prides are needed as they benefit lions by increasing their hunting efficiency as well as defending their territories against other lions and animals. Lions greet each other by rubbing their heads together with their tails looped in the air as they moan.

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Female and male Panthera leo at Masai Mara, Kenya, © 2006 Richard Brooks


A male lion roaring. © 2006 Richard Brooks

The length of a lion can range between 205-350 cm. They can weigh between 265-550 pounds and grow up to 109 cm tall. Both male and female lions have tawny-colored fur, but it can also vary in color from yellowish gray to dark brown. They possess powerful jaws as well as forelimbs that are stronger relative to their hind limbs.  

Lions are sexually dimorphic, meaning there are morphological (physical) differences between the two sexes. Male lions develop manes as they begin to mature but females do not. The mane is an indicator of the lion's physical condition, such as nutrition, and it can be used to intimidate other lions as well as attract females. Research by B. D. Patterson suggests mane development in lions is affected by climate. It was found that lions living on higher elevated grounds possessed a more extensive mane compared to lions living in hot and dry places. The mass of the lion and the development of the mane also seem to have a direct correlation. Furthermore, lions held in captivity generally have a larger mane compared to wild lions, which is probably due to better nutrition as well as climatic effects.

Predation and Conservation

With lions being fierce carnivores, they have very few predators, which include humans, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas. Lions compete with the other big cats for food, and hyenas are known to kill lion cubs or weak adult lions.

Humans on the other hand are a big problem for lions as poaching has decreased the lion population over time. It is estimated that only 23,500 lions remain in African protected areas compared to 100,000 a quarter century before. Due to the decline in population, many African countries have protected areas to restrict lions from being poached.

Dietary Information and Hunting

Lions at Serengeti National Park, Tanzania investigating a cape pangolin rolled into a defensive ball. © 2006

Female lion at Masai Mara, Tanzania. © Robert Moncrieff

Female lion roaring, © 2006 Mila Zinkova

Lions hunt various animals and usually hunt in prides. Prides can have different food preferences from one another. Both sexes also have different preferred preys, with females hunting smaller prey such as zebras and males hunting larger prey such as buffalos. Their diet can be composed of zebras, buffalos, wildebeests, as well as small animals such as birds, fish, and rodents. Hunting efficiency of an individual lion is about 17% but around 30% in prides; this is probably one of the reasons why lions are usually in prides.

Lions usually hunt at night in groups comprised of females, since the manes of the males draw too much attention. While experts at stealth and ambushes, the lions are quite a bit slower than the prey they hunt to the extent that some prey do not even run away at their maximum speed. For this reason, lions use the darkness and bushes to conceal their presence, lying in wait near water holes and downwind from their prey to avoid being detected by scent. Although they can sprint up to 60km/h for short bursts, they are often unsuccessful because the prey they hunt is much faster.


Lions can reproduce all year round, but the female estrus period, when the female is in heat, peaks in the rainy season and lasts for four days. During the estrus period, the lioness will mate several hundred times in total. Usually, there is no fighting over females within a pride, as males will mate with many females. Takeover, or the attacking of one pride by another pride, occurs approximately every two years and is fought by the males. The winner will be able to mate with the females, ensuring that his genes will be passed on to the next generation.

Gestation period is three to four months, with the female giving birth to a litter of two to four cubs. After giving birth, the female will not mate for about two years. It is the female’s responsibility to raise the cubs and to wean them between seven and ten months of age. At about one year, the cubs start learning how to hunt, perfecting their technique by the time they are two years old. At this time, males are driven from the pride.

Miscellaneous Information


1. Patterson, B.D, et al. (2006). DEVELOPMENTAL EFFECTS OF CLIMATE ON THE LION’S MANE (PANTHERA LEO). Journal of Mammalogy, 87(2):193–200.

2. Barnett, R, et al. (2006). The origin, current diversity and future conservation of the modern lion (Panthera leo). Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 273(1598): 2119–2125.

3. Patterson, B.D. (2007). On the Nature and Significance of Variability in Lions(Panthera leo). Evol Biol (2007) 34:55–60.

4. Luo SJ, Kim JH, Johnson WE, Walt Jvd, Martenson J, et al. (2004). Phylogeography and Genetic Ancestry of Tigers (Panthera tigris). PLoS Biology Vol. 2, No. 12, e442 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020442.

5. International Society for Endangered Cats. (2001). Lion. Retrieved April 21, 2008, from

6. Wilson, D.E. & Reeder D. M. (2005) Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed), Johns Hopkins University Press.

7. Rebecca Postanowicz. Lion (Panthera leo). Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

8. Natural High Safaris. How Lions Hunt. Retrieved April 21, 2008, from

9. Schaller, George B. (1972). The Serengeti lion: A study of predator-prey relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

10. Harrington, E. & P. Myers. (2004). Panthera leo. Retrieved April 27, 2008, from

11. Macdonald, David (1984). The Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: Facts on File, 31

12. Patterson B.D. (2005). Living with Lions in Tsavo. travel news & lifestyle No. 129, 28-31.

About This Page
This page was made for the Origins 2FF3 course, the Origins and Evolution of Organisms, taught by Dr. Jonathon Stone, Associate Director of the Origins Institute at McMaster University.

Ye Yuan
McMaster University

McMaster University

Correspondence regarding this page should be directed to Ye Yuan at and Yue Long Chance Chan at

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