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Cave and Asiatic lions

7 January 2016

 

www.leopard.tv

The lion Panthera leo is often known as the King of the Beasts of Africa but it is not limited in its distribution to Africa. Moreover, there once were larger and more mighty carnivores than lions in Africa which competed with ancient man for food.

This competition and environmental factors later lead to the extinction of large carnivores such as the sabre-tooth cats, a hunting hyaena with long legs, giant bear-like dogs, a plant-eating bear and mongooses as large as a leopard.

The first lion-like cat developed in East Africa some 10.8 million years ago. From it the ancestor to the roaring cat genus Panthera developed which later gave rise to many species of cat. The African lion Panthera leo leo developed some 2.46 million years ago, also in East Africa, at a time when some of the forests which once covered most of Africa became replaced by open grasslands and bushveld as a result of climate change.

Lions probably moved from Africa to Europe and Asia when a land bridge developed between Africa, Europe and Asia some 800 000 to a million years ago, and the so-called cave or steppe lion Panthera leo spelaea developed from these lions some 600 000 years ago. Among others, fossils of the cave lion that are some 300 000 years old have been found at Isernia in Italy. With time, the cave lion moved over Europe and Asia to reach Siberia, and then spread from there to the western parts of Alaska where they lived from 370 000 to 12 500 years ago. As did the mammoths, the cave lion probably became extinct some 12 500 years ago during a sudden, severe ice age. Two frozen cave lion cubs of some three weeks old were recently found in the permafrost of Yakutia in Siberia where they lay perfectly preserved for thousands of years. This discovery makes it possible to study their genetic, anatomical and morphological structure and compare it with that of the African and Asiatic lion in detail, although it is already known that the cave lion was genetically different from the lions of Africa. At present, the cave lion, Asiatic lion and the African lion are regarded as three distinct subspecies of the modern lion Panthera leo.

www.leopard.tvThe smaller Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica developed from the cave lion as a result of geographic isolation. The Asiatic lion was first described scientifically as Felis leo persica in 1826 from Persia (Iran) by the Austrian zoologist Johann Nepomuk Meyer some 68 years after Carl Linnaeus initially described the lions of Africa as Felis leo on the basis of a specimen from Constantine near the Barbary coast in the Atlas Mountains of north-eastern Algeria. This city originally was the Numidian city of Cirta which later became the royal Phoenician city Sewa which was also known as the City of Bridges because of the deep ravines which occur there. When the Romans conquered it in the fourth century it was renamed Constantine in honour of the Roman Emperor of that time. Later, more lion specimens were collected elsewhere along the Barbary coast and these lions became known as Barbary or Atlas lions.

Asiatic lions share their habitat with the Bengal tiger Panthera tigris tigris, the Indian leopard Panthera pardus fuscus, the snow leopard Panthera uncia and the clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosa macrosceloides. They also once occurred in Iran (Persia), Mesopotamia (an ancient region in south-western Asia), Baluchstan in western Asia and in large parts of India as far east as the state of Bengal. In India they were hunted on a large scale by the royal families and occupational British military officers. During the Indian Rebellion it was reported that one such British officer had shot some 300 lions in India. They also once occurred in Israel and Syria and were widely spread in Iran where they were later confined to the western slopes of the Zagros Mountains and the forests south of Shiraz. Asiatic lions were still present along the upper parts of the Euphrates River in the 1870s, and the last pride in Iran was shot in the Dasht-i Arzhan province in 1963. Early in the twentieth century there were only an estimated 12 Asiatic lions left alive in India

As a result of the large-scale decimation of lions in Asia there are only old symbols of these lions left in most regions. However, these lions once occurred on the national emblems of various states, or still do so. Singhãsama is the traditional Sanskrit name for the seat of the lion on the throne of the Hindu Kingdom in India and for the Sinhalese Kingdom of Sri Lanka, while art works from the fourth century in the Ukraine depict scenes of lion hunts realistically.

The Asiatic lion is smaller than the African lion and genetically differs from it by 1.1 per cent. An adult male weighs 160 to 190 kg and a female 110 to 120 kg. The shoulder height is some 1.1 m and the coat colour varies from buffy red, with numerous black specks, to sandy buffy grey, sometimes with a silverish tint. There is a sparse mane on the head and the ears are always noticeable, but the mane is never long. The most conspicuous morphological features are a large tassel on the tail and a prominent skin fold over the entire length of the stomach. Half of the skulls have a divided hollow in front of the eyes which does not occur in the African lion. The skull also has a more marked ridge on the head and the portion behind the eyes is shorter than in the African lion. Moreover, the bulla of the ear is less bulbous than in the African lion.

The Asiatic lion is less social than the African lion and consequently occurs in smaller prides with fewer females than in the African lion. The large males are permanent residents of a pride and the lions mostly prey on animals that weigh some 50 kg. The Asiatic lion is susceptible to diseases and 79 per cent of their sperm cells were once morphologically abnormal. These aspects are typical of a population that went through a genetic bottleneck and almost became extinct.

From 1965, the Asiatic lions of India have been protected vigorously, initially by the creation of the Gir National Park and the Gir Conservation Area of some 1931 km2 around the Gir and Girnar Hills in the principality of Jubagadh, some 43 km north-west of Somnath in southern India. As a result of these conservation measures, the population gradually increased to 411 individuals in 2010 while their natural prey there increased seven-fold from 1974 to 2010. The Gir Conservation Area includes seven large rivers and the habitat largely consists of arid teak forests and other deciduous trees. The eastern portion of the conservation area consists of arid thorn tree bushveld with an annual rainfall of some 650 mm, but the western portions receive up to 1000 mm of rain per year.

Currently there are five contiguous conservation areas for the Asiatic lion: the Gir Conservation Area, the Gir National Park, the Pania Conservation Area, the Mitiyala Conservation Area and the Girnar Conservation Area. The sperm cells of the current population now has a large percentage of morphological normality, but there is still a low genetic diversity as a result of earlier inbreeding, as it also is in the cheetah. That is why in April 2013 the High Court of India decreed that a second conservation area should be established within six months in the adjacent Barda Forest Reserve of Madhya Pradesh. This was done and has improved the conservation status of the Asiatic lion to the point that in May 2015 there were 523 Asiatic lions, of which 201 were adult females and 213 cubs. This is now a genetically viable population.

 

References:

Anon 2013. Asiatic lion. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Asiatic_lion&oldid=567223575

Bagatharia, S B, M V Joshi, R V Pundya, A S Pardit, R D Patel, S M Desai, A Sharma, O Panchal, F P Jasman & A K Saxena 2013. Complete mitogenome of the Asiatic lion restores phylogenetic status within Panthera. BMC Genomics 14: 572.

Barnett, R, N Yamaguchi, I Barnes & A Cooper 2006. The origin, current diversity and future conservation of the modern lion (Panthera leo). Biological Science Proceedings, Royal Society 273: 2119 - 2125.

Turner, A 1997. The big cats and their fossil relatives: an illustrated guide to their evolution and natural history. New York: Columbia University Press.

Werdelin, L 2013. King of the beasts. Scientific American, November: 36 - 39.

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

article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

 

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