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What Is a Barbary Lion?

Like today's lionesses, the female Barbary lions did not have manes.
Africa still has lions, but Barbary lions are extinct.
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  • Written By: Angie Bates
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 20 August 2014
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Also called the Atlas lion, the Barbary lion is a now extinct species native to North Africa. This lion was shorter, but more muscular than the other lion species still living today. It was also distinguished by the dark, full mane that extended farther down its back and under its belly that modern lions. The last known Barbary lion was seen in 1921. Its scientific name is Panthera leo leo.

The Barbary lion is considered was one the largest lion subspecies to have existed even though it stood nearly a foot shorter, at 3 feet (0.9 m), than most lion species. Its extremely well developed muscles and overall length, however, made up for what it lacked in height. Barbary lions averaged about 11 feet (3.35 m) long, and the males weighed around 550 pounds (249.5 kg). Like other lion species, the females were smaller, only weighing about 350 pounds (158.8 kg).

Size was not the only distinguishing characteristic of the Barbary lion. The males' manes, although golden around their face, became darker as they moved away from the faces. The manes also extended to or past the shoulders along the back and covered the lions' bellies completely. Additionally, the tail tufts were thicker and more pronounced. Even females had thicker and longer fur in the mane area, though like all known lionesses, they did not have manes.

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The Barbary lion lived in the arid mountain regions of North Africa known as the Atlas mountains. Unlike other African lion species, they were solitary cats, spending most of their lives alone or with a single companion. Food was not plentiful in their region. They ate large animals, such as gazelle, deer, sheep, and wild boar.

The cause of the Barbary lion's extinction began with Ancient Rome. Barbary lions were the primary lions captured by the Romans to use in Coliseum games and slaughtered on a whim on orders of the Emperor. The wild population might have recovered if not for the colonization of French and Arabian settlers. Many lions were shot, considered threats by settlers, and the lions' territories shrank. Their already limited food source became scarce, and the lions simply could not survive.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, studies have been conducted at zoos around the world hoping to find pure samples of the Barbary lion in order reintroduce this species to the wild. There have been some promising prospects, and using genetics, groups of zoo-bound lions have been positively determined to be descendants of the Barbary. The chance of finding a living pure-blooded Barbary lion remains unclear, however.

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