- CLASS: Mammalia (Mammals)
- ORDER: Carnivora
- FAMILY: Felidae
- GENUS: Panthera
- SPECIES: leo
Lions have captured our imagination for centuries. Stars of movies and characters in books, lions are at the top of the food chain. The Swahili word for lion, simba, also means "king," "strong," and "aggressive." The word lion has similar meaning in our vocabulary. If you call someone lionhearted, you’re describing a courageous and brave person. If you lionize someone, you treat that person with great interest or importance.
Prime habitat for lions is open woodlands, thick grassland, and brush habitat, where there is enough cover for hunting and denning. These areas of grassland habitat also provide food for the animals lions prey upon.
Lions differ from the other members of the large cat genus, Panthera—tigers, leopards, and jaguars. Adult male lions are much larger than females and usually have an impressive mane of hair around the neck. The color, size, and abundance of the mane all vary among individuals and with age. The mane’s function is to make the male look more impressive to females and more intimidating to rival males. The lion’s thick mane also protects his neck against raking claws during fights with other males over territory disputes or breeding rights.
Lions are also the only cats that live in large, social groups called “prides.” A pride can have 3 to 30 lions and is made up of lionesses (mothers, sisters, and cousins), and their cubs, along with a few unrelated adult males. The pride has a close bond and is not likely to accept a stranger. The unrelated males stay a few months or a few years, but the older lionesses stay together for life. In dry areas with less food, prides are smaller, with two lionesses in charge. In habitats with more food and water, prides can have four to six adult lionesses. Both males and females scent mark to define their territory.
Living in a pride makes life easier. Hunting as a group means there is a better chance that the lions have food when they need it, and it is less likely that they will get injured while hunting. Lion researchers have noticed that some activities are “contagious” within a pride. If one lion yawns, grooms itself, or roars, it sets off a wave of yawning, grooming, or roaring!
Lions and lionesses play different roles in the life of the pride. The lionesses work together to hunt and help rear the cubs. This allows them to get the most from their hard work, keeping them healthier and safer. Being smaller and lighter than males, lionesses are more agile and faster. During hunting, smaller females chase the prey toward the center of the hunting group. The larger and heavier lionesses ambush or capture the prey. Lionesses are versatile and can switch hunting jobs depending on which females are hunting that day and what kind of prey it is.
While it may look like the lionesses do all the work in the pride, the males play an important role. While they do eat more than the lionesses and bring in far less food (they hunt less than 10 percent of the time), males patrol, mark, and guard the pride’s territory. Males also guard the cubs while the lionesses are hunting, and they make sure the cubs get enough food. When a new male tries to join a pride, he has to fight the males already there. The new male is either driven off or succeeds in pushing out the existing males.
A lion’s life is filled with sleeping, napping, and resting. Over the course of 24 hours, lions have short bursts of intense activity, followed by long bouts of lying around that total up to 21 hours! Lions are good climbers and often rest in trees, perhaps to catch a cool breeze or to get away from flies. Researchers have often noticed lions lying around in crazy poses, such as on their backs with their feet in the air or legs spread wide apart!
Lions are famous for their sonorous roar. Males are able to roar when they are about one year old, and females can roar a few months later. Lions use their roar as one form of communication. It identifies individuals, strengthens the pride’s bond, and lets other animals know of the pride’s domain. Other sounds lions produce include growls, snarls, hisses, meows, grunts, and puffs, which sound like a stifled sneeze and is used in friendly situations.
Lions have other forms of communication as well, mostly used to mark territory. They spread their scent by rubbing their muzzle on tufts of grass or shrubs, and they rake the earth with their hind paws, as the paws have scent glands, too. Adult males also spray urine—stand back!
HABITAT AND DIET
Prime habitat for lions is open woodlands, thick grassland, and brush habitat where there is enough cover for hunting and denning. These areas of grassland habitat also provide food for the animals lions prey upon.
Lions usually hunt at night, particularly at dusk and dawn, with lionesses doing most of the work. A lion chasing down prey can run the length of a football field in six seconds. Their eyes have a horizontal streak of nerve cells, which improves their vision following prey across a plain. Lions have been spotted taking down animals as large as buffalo and giraffes! They may even drag this heavy prey into thickets of brush to keep other animals from getting to it.
Lions hunt antelope and other hoofed animals, baby elephants or rhinos, rodents, reptiles, insects, and even crocodiles. They also scavenge or steal prey from leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, or wild dogs, even eating food that has spoiled. Lions digest their food quickly, which allows them to return soon for a second helping after gorging themselves the first time.
At the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the lions get lean ground meat made for zoo carnivores as well as an occasional large bone, thawed rabbit, or sheep carcass.
A lioness gives birth to her cubs in a secluded location away from the pride. At birth, each cub’s coat is yellowish brown and marked with distinct dark, rosette-shaped spots or, sometimes, stripes. Cubs remain hidden for four to six weeks as they gain strength, learn to walk, and play with one another and their mother. When they return to the pride, they can nurse from any adult lioness in the pride, not just their own mother. In fact, the females in a pride often give birth around the same time, which makes for lots of playmates!
Cubs born in a pride are twice as likely to survive as those born to a lioness that is on her own. However, if a new adult male takes over the pride, he may kill cubs under one year old so that he can father new ones. Under favorable conditions, a lioness can produce cubs roughly every other year.
From the time they are born, cubs have a lot to learn! At three months old, cubs are able to follow their mother wherever she goes, and they are weaned by the age of six months. At about one year old, males start to get fuzz around their neck that grows into the long mane adult male lions are famous for.
How long a lion cub stays with Mom depends on the sex of the cub. Mothers generally raise males until they are just about two. Once they hit that stage in life, the mother usually runs them out of the group, and they are on their own. Sometimes the sub-adult males form bachelor groups and run together until they are big enough to start challenging older males in an attempt to take over a pride. If the cubs are female, Mom cares for them until about two years of age and they usually stay with the pride they were born into. A mother and daughter may live together for life.
Lions that do not live in prides are called nomads, and they range far and wide while following migrating herds of large game. Nomads are generally young males, roaming in pairs or small groups and often related to one another. Females are occasionally nomadic, too. For reason not clearly understood, young females are sometimes driven from their pride just as are young males. As they gain in age and experience, nomadic males may challenge established pride males for dominance of a given territory and its pride of lionesses, or they may join nomadic females and form a new pride.
AT THE ZOO
We began with a roar! Whenever people are asked to name animals that are in a zoo, lions are usually at the very top of the list. They have certainly been an important part of the San Diego Zoo’s history! There was no San Diego Zoo in 1915, when a handsome male lion named Rex and two females, Rena and Cleopatra, arrived in town as part of the Panama-California International Exposition. It was soon after the Exposition ended that Harry Wegeforth, M.D., decided to create a zoo in San Diego after hearing Rex roar! Rex, Rena, and Cleopatra became some of the new Zoo’s earliest residents.
In 1923, an open-air lion grotto opened along what is now the Zoo’s Center Street. Although there is no record of what happened to Rex and Rena, Cleopatra moved into the then state-of-the-art enclosure along with another female named Queen and a new male named Prince. The trio enjoyed the sun and fresh breezes blowing through the canyon. Lots of lion cubs were born in those early years—Cleopatra had 33 babies over an 8-year period! In our nearly 100-year-history, 119 lions have been born at the Zoo.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has had lions on exhibit since it opened in 1972. In 2004, the Safari Park’s Lion Camp opened with six adorable six-month-old Transvaal lion cubs newly arrived from a facility in Africa. Lion Camp looks like a bit of African habitat, so guests get to see lots of natural lion behaviors, watching the cats as they romp in the grass, explore the logs and rocks, or sit and watch the antelope, giraffes, and rhinos in the nearby African Plains field enclosure. Guests can come right up to the large glass panels for some eye-to-eye moments with the beasts. Lion Camp is currently home to three of those original six cubs: male Izu and his two adoring female companions, Oshana and Mina. Many of their 18 surviving cubs from over the years are now residing in other zoos, but several are still here. And another of the original six Lion Camp residents, female Etosha, who spent many years at the San Diego Zoo's Elephant Odyssey, has returned to the Safari Park. We are so proud of our pride!
Currently, lions Ernest and Miss Ellen now hold court in the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, an area of the Zoo where we spotlight the animals that lived here in Southern California over 10,000 years ago with their modern-day counterparts. Here you’ll find a life-size statue of the American lion, which lived here 12,000 years ago. Our lions survey territory that includes a foothill environment with rocky slopes, trees, grasses, and a stream. Specially heated rocks make the perfect lounging spot for the king of beasts. At this “kingdom,” guests get close enough to count the cats’ whisker spots and bask in the lions’ golden gaze. M’bari, a male lion who for many years awed Zoo visitors with his majestic bearing and late-afternoon bouts of roaring, passed away on May 22, 2019, at age 15.
The lions at both the Zoo and the Safari Park have learned behaviors that help our keepers take care of them. The lions know their names, so when keepers need to look at a particular lion, they can call that cat. This also comes in handy when it’s time fort the lions to go to their bedrooms at night. Special clickers and meat treats let the cats know when they have done what was asked, like stand up against the glass so the keeper can see their paws and belly. If a lion has an injury, the keepers can spot it right away.
Life for our lions is filled with new and unexpected experiences, just like it would be for them in the wild; however, it's up to their keepers to provide the big cats with those experiences by offering them a variety of things to sniff, taste, or play with. We call this enrichment. Keepers often place interesting scents in their exhibit, found in such items as wood shavings from our barns, herbs like cloves or cinnamon rubbed on a rock, or fox urine sprayed on a wall. Food enrichment can include large, blocks of ice, like a huge popsicle, filled with chunks of meat, called “meat-sicles,” or whole fish—a “fish-sicle”! Cardboard boxes, palm fronds, and feed sacks make great toys, too. And the lions love to play with large, heavy-duty plastic balls, rolling, tossing, and even pouncing on them, all in good fun. Thanks to their keepers and trainers, there is never a dull day.
A 27-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Rex, the lion whose roar inspired the creation of the San Diego Zoo in 1916, stands at the Zoo entrance. It honors the iconic status of lions in San Diego Zoo history and makes for a memorable photo opportunity for guests. To San Diegans, lions are symbolic of “their” zoo. Long may they reign!
Are lions in trouble? Due to many issues such as disease, hunting by humans, and loss of habitat, the population of lions in the wild is becoming very concerning to conservationists. Natural habitat for lions is now found only in protected reserves, and lion movement between prides is becoming more limited. While lion hunting is banned in many African countries, trophy hunting is still allowed in some places. In other areas, there are so many lions for so little space that rangers often put the females on birth control to reduce the number of cubs born. Ranchers sometimes poison lions that prey on livestock.
It is estimated that there are between 6,000 and 10,000 African lions in Africa. The Asian lion used to be found from the Middle East across to India. There are now only about 400 to 460 of this lion subspecies left, with more than half living in a reserve that used to be royal hunting grounds in an area of dry teak forest called the Gir Forest, now under national protection by the Indian government. The remainder of this particular subspecies lives in zoos.
San Diego Zoo Global supports lion conservation. We provide funds to two organizations in Africa that work to help lions and other wildlife: the Northern Rangelands Trust and the Grevy’s Zebra Trust. The conservation of lions has to be reconciled with the needs of humans. Some conflict may be unavoidable in areas where agriculture or livestock farming compete with cat habitats, but it can be minimized, and local people must feel that efforts are being made to protect their interests. Education is a key component of conservation, providing information to all levels of the community about the role of cats in their habitat and ways to conserve them.