The lion (Panthera leo) is the second-largest big cat, smaller only than the tiger. In the wild, an adult male can weigh up to 500 lbs and lives 10-14 years. The North American mountain lion is a completely separate species, and not a true lion.
There are eight recognized sub-species of lion, two of which are extinct in the wild, and one of which, the Asiatic, is considered critically endangered. No more than 350 animals of this variety are thought to exist in the wild. The four African species are considerably more successful, with estimates of their population ranging between 16,500 to 47,000 animals. Yet while these numbers seem large, experts suggest that the population has dropped nearly 50% in the last two decades, leading the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources to list the species as vulnerable to extinction.
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Lions live in two types of social group: Resident and Nomadic. In Resident populations, lions live in a pride consisting of several adult females and their cubs, and one or two adult males. Nomadic lions tend to live alone or in pairs, and travel over a much wider area without any particular home range. The male lion can switch between a Resident and Nomadic life, but female Resident lions have a strict hierarchy that generally will not admit a Nomad female into the pride.
The diet of adult lions is made up entirely of meat. As females are faster and more agile than males, pride lionesses work together to hunt for the entire group. The male will never share his own kills, but lionesses allow the males to join the feed after the females and the young have eaten their fill.
Pride females synchronize their reproductive cycles, so that when cubs are born, all females can nurture and nurse them. Cubs nurse for six to seven months before weaning. Experts suggest that competition for scarce food leads to a high cub death rate; in the wild, up to 80% of cubs die before reaching maturity. Another possible reason for the high mortality rate is a result of lion breeding behavior. If a new male takes over a pride, he will kill all of the cubs, ensuring that the females will become fertile.
The lion is often called “King of the Jungle” and figures prominently into many legends. In Greece, fighting the Nemean Lion was one of Hercules’ labors, and after its death the lion was put into the sky as the constellation Leo. Egyptians worshipped this constellation because its yearly rise in the sky coincided with the annual rising of the Nile. Egyptian and Greek mythology also mention the Sphinx, a half-lion, half-human monster said to speak in riddles and be both wise and dangerous.
As early as 850 BCE, lions have been kept in captivity. Alexander the Great was said to have been presented with tame lions as a gift. In England, there are records of lions being kept in the Tower of London as part of menageries from the 13th century onward. While once kept in cemented and heavily barred cages, modern enclosures are meant to mimic a natural wild habitat. Today, you may see lions for yourself in nearly every zoo in the world, as they remain an extremely popular and fascinating animal.