The lion (Panthera leo) is one of the big cats in the genus Panthera and a member of the family Felidae. The commonly used term African lion collectively denotes the several subspecies found in Africa. With some males exceeding 250 kg (550 lb) in weight, it is the second-largest living cat after the tiger. Wild lions currently exist in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia (where an endangered remnant population resides in Gir Forest National Park in India) while other types of lions have disappeared from North Africa and Southwest Asia in historic times. Until the late Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago, the lion was the most widespread large land mammal after humans. In historic times, since 480 BC, their range was in most of Africa and across Eurasia from eastern Europe to India. In the late Pleistocene, a subspecies (Panthera leo spelaea) lived in northern and western Europe, and a closely related species, Panthera atrox, lived in the Americas from the Yukon to Peru. The lion is a vulnerable species, having seen a major population decline in its African range of 30–50% per two decades during the second half of the twentieth century. Lion populations are untenable outside designated reserves and national parks. Although the cause of the decline is not fully understood, habitat loss and conflicts with humans are currently the greatest causes of concern. Within Africa, the West African lion population is particularly endangered.
In the wild, males seldom live longer than 10 to 14 years, as injuries sustained from continual fighting with rival males greatly reduce their longevity. In captivity they can live more than 20 years. They typically inhabit savanna and grassland, although they may take to bush and forest. Lions are unusually social compared to other cats. A pride of lions consists of related females and offspring and a small number of adult males. Groups of female lions typically hunt together, preying mostly on large ungulates. Lions are apex and keystone predators, although they are also expert scavengers obtaining over 50 percent of their food by scavenging as opportunity allows. While lions do not typically hunt humans, some have. Sleeping mainly during the day, lions are active primarily at night (nocturnal), although sometimes at twilight (crepuscular).
Highly distinctive, the male lion is easily recognised by its mane, and its face is one of the most widely recognised animal symbols in human culture. Depictions have existed from the Upper Paleolithic period, with carvings and paintings from the Lascaux and Chauvet Caves, through virtually all ancient and medieval cultures where they once occurred. It has been extensively depicted in sculptures, in paintings, on national flags, and in contemporary films and literature. Lions have been kept in menageries since the time of the Roman Empire, and have been a key species sought for exhibition in zoos over the world since the late eighteenth century. Zoos are cooperating worldwide in breeding programs for the endangered Asiatic subspecies.
Lions spend much of their time resting and are inactive for about 20 hours per day. Although lions can be active at any time, their activity generally peaks after dusk with a period of socialising, grooming, and defecating. Intermittent bursts of activity follow through the night hours until dawn, when hunting most often takes place. They spend an average of two hours a day walking and 50 minutes eating.
Hunting and diet
Lions prefer to scavenge when the opportunity presents itself with carrion providing more than 50% of their diet. They scavenge animals either dead from natural causes (disease) or killed by other predators, and keep a constant lookout for circling vultures, being keenly aware that they indicate an animal dead or in distress. In fact, most dead prey on which both hyenas and lions feed upon are killed by the hyenas instead of the lions.
The lionesses do most of the hunting for the pride. The male lion associated with the pride usually stays and watches over young cubs until the lionesses return from the hunt. Typically, several work together and encircle the herd from different points. Once they have closed in on the herd, they usually target the animal closest to them. The attack is short and powerful; they attempt to catch the victim with a fast rush and final leap. The prey usually is killed by strangulation, which can cause cerebral ischemia or asphyxia (which results in hypoxemic, or “general”, hypoxia). The prey also may be killed by the lion enclosing the animal’s mouth and nostrils in its jaws (which would also result in asphyxia).