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The morphology of the African lion

3 March 2014

www.leopard.tvThe lion Pantherea leo has been the largest terrestrial carnivore in Africa for many centuries, and is the only truly sociable cat. It developed fairly recently from the much larger cave lion which inhabited Europe until some 2100 years ago. Although lions were once spread widely and were often used by the Romans in their colosseums to fight gladiators and kill luckless prisoners, they mainly survive in Africa with a remnant population in southern India where they have developed some unique morphological changes and are also some 10 per cent smaller than in Africa. The most noticeable difference is a pronounced belly fold from the front to the hind legs in the Asiatic lion which rarely also occurs in the African one.

www.leopard.tvThe coat of an adult African lion is unpatterned and varies from light tawny to silvery gray, yellowish red and dark brown, with the underparts generally paler and whitish. Especially some females can appear to be almost golden yellow. However, the young cubs have dark rosettes on the coat and these rosettes can fuse to form dark stripes in some cases. Subadult lions and adult females retain faded rosettes on the belly and this retention of atavistic rosettes indicates that the ancestors of the African lion once lived in more densely forested habitats. Black and albinistic coat colours are extremely rare, although a white coat colour mutation does occur in South Africa. The coat of the African lion is less thick, the black tassel or tuft on the tail is shorter and the mane is more developed than in the Asiatic lion. The tassel is attached to the tail through a horny patch of calloused skin on the last tail vetrebra. Just behind the shoulders on the upper parts of the body the hair form a whorl on either side and there is a short crest of erect hair in the middle of the back. The hair on the face, upper parts of the body, flanks and the tail, except the tassel, is short while that of the underparts is softer and longer.

Manes are closely linked to the lion’s social system but they do not occur in all males in equal magnitude and adult maneless males do occur occasionally. The distinctive mane can be yellow, brown or reddish-brown in young animals but it seems to darken with age to black at times. The lions in the colder highlands of East Africa tend to have longer and darker manes than those in hotter regions. Mane development is influenced strongly by the level of testosterone of a male and young males start to grow a mane when they are some 3.5 years old. However, its growth and developement varies between individuals. Manes come in all sizes but make a lion look more vicious and impressive and are conspicuous visual signals of aggression. In some males the mane can extend to the belly. With a full mane and his typical strutting walk a male lion is an easily identifiable and intimidating figure, even at some distance. It appears that lions can recognize individual males from their manes. As a secondary function, the mane protects the head and neck region during territorial fights because the dense mat of hair absorbs blows and tangles the claws of an opponent. Even bites with the massive jaws may leave a male with little or no skin and only a mouth full of hair. The whiskers of a lion emerge from black spots on the skin of the upper lip and are touch- sensitive hairs. The pattern of spots where the whiskers emerge are specific for every individual lion. Sometimes there is a tuft of hair on the elbows of a male.

Like the tiger, a lion has well-muscled forequarters that are designed to grasp and bring down large prey. The hindquarters taper to slender hind legs. The heaviest adult male in the Kruger National Park weighed 225 kg but one that weighed 272 kg was shot on Mount Kenya. Females weigh some 50 per cent less than the males which reach their maximum weight after seven years and females after five to six years.The shoulder height of an adult male is around 145 cm and that of a female 107 cm. The tail is some 40 to 50 per cent of the overall body length.

The head is massive and contains recurved canine teath of up to 6 cm long to be able to kill the prey, and strong carnassial teeth to tear off chunks of meat. The powerful jaw and neck muscles are attached to a prominent sagittal crest on top of the skull. Despite its massive appearance, the limb propoprtions of a lion more closely resembles that of the cheetah which is known for its speed. It is therefore no surprise that a lion has a fearsome, high-speed charge. Nevertheless, the limbs are more built to act as weapons than for running. Although a lion can run at a speed of up to 59 km per hour, it cannot sustain this speed for much more than 100 m. It can jump as high as 3 m and digs better than other large cats. Each leg has a massive paw with five toes on the fore feet and four on the hind feet. Each toe ends in a highly recurved, laterally compressed, retractile claw in a protective sheath. On the fore feet the fifth toe is set well back from the other four and does not appear in the footprint

As in all cats, lions have keen binocular vision and depend more on it than on their senses of smell and hearing to hunt. They also have excellent peripheral vison which, as other cats, has gained them a reputation of aloofness because they may seem to be gazing away while watching something peripherally. The pupils gather light and the eyes are large in relation to their body size. The amount of light that enters the eye is regulated by dilating or closing the pupils. In dim light the pupils are wide open but in sharp sunlight they close to almost vertical pinpricks. The eyes of the lion were sculptured prominently in ancient Egypt and Arabia because the penetrating stare of the lion has always impressed humans. This awesome stare of a lion is also used in initiation ceromonies in parts of Africa where boys are only regarded as men once they have stared a lion in the face at close quarters on foot.

Although lions can hear less well than see, they do hear well above the frequency at which humans can hear and use this capacity when hunting. The ears are black and the liverlike colour of the nose darkens with age. While still understood poorly, lion scent most likely contains information that can be understood by other lions.

 

References:

Skinner, J D and C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 390 - 396.

Sunquist, M and F Sunquist 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp 285 - 304.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

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