The lion (Panthera leo) is one of the four big cats in the genus Panthera and a member of the family Felidae. Wild lions currently exist in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia, with an endangered remnant population in Gir Forest National Park in India, having 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.
Eight subspecies are recognised today:
Weights for adult lions range between 150–250 kg for males and 120–182 kg for females.
Head and body length is 170–250 cm in males and 140–175 cm in females; shoulder height is up to 123 cm in males and as low as 91 cm in females. The tail length is 90–105 cm in males and 70–100 cm in females.
The lion is the tallest (at the shoulder) of all living cats, averaging about 14 cm (5.5 in) taller than the tiger. Behind only the tiger, the lion is the second largest living felid in length and weight. Its skull is very similar to that of the tiger, although the frontal region is usually more depressed and flattened, with a slightly shorter postorbital region. The lion's skull has broader nasal openings than the tiger. However, due to the amount of skull variation in the two species, usually, only the structure of the lower jaw can be used as a reliable indicator of species.
Lion coloration varies from light buff to yellowish, reddish, or dark ochraceous brown. The underparts are generally lighter and the tail tuft is black. Lion cubs are born with brown rosettes (spots) on their body, rather like those of a leopard. Although these fade as lions reach adulthood, faint spots often may still be seen on the legs and underparts, particularly on lionesses.
The mane of the adult male lion, unique among cats, is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the species. It makes the lion appear larger, providing an excellent intimidation display; this aids the lion during confrontations with other lions and with the species' chief competitor in Africa, the spotted hyena.
In the Pendjari National Park area almost all males are maneless or have very weak manes. Maneless male lions have also been reported from Senegal and from Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, and the original male white lion from Timbavati also was maneless.
Cave paintings of extinct European cave lions exclusively show animals with no mane, or just the hint of a mane, suggesting that they were maneless.
The white lion is not a distinct subspecies, but a special morph with a genetic condition, leucism, that causes paler colouration akin to that of the white tiger; the condition is similar to melanism, which causes black panthers.
When resting, lion socialization occurs through a number of behaviours, and the animal's expressive movements are highly developed. The most common peaceful tactile gestures are head rubbing and social licking, which have been compared with grooming in primates. Head rubbing—nuzzling one's forehead, face and neck against another lion—appears to be a form of greeting, as it is seen often after an animal has been apart from others, or after a fight or confrontation. Males tend to rub other males, while cubs and females rub females. Social licking often occurs in tandem with head rubbing; it is generally mutual and the recipient appears to express pleasure. The head and neck are the most common parts of the body licked, which may have arisen out of utility, as a lion cannot lick these areas individually.
Lions have an array of facial expressions and body postures that serve as visual gestures. Their repertoire of vocalizations is also large; variations in intensity and pitch, rather than discrete signals, appear central to communication. Lion sounds include snarling, hissing, coughing, miaowing, woofing and roaring. Lions tend to roar in a very characteristic manner, starting with a few deep, long roars that trail off into a series of shorter ones. They most often roar at night; the sound, which can be heard from a distance of 8 kilometres (5 miles), is used to advertise the animal's presence. Lions have the loudest roar of any big cat.
Lions are the most socially inclined of all wild felids, most of which remain quite solitary in nature. The lion is a predatory carnivore who manifest two types of social organization. Some are residents, living in groups, called prides. The pride usually consists of five or six related females, their cubs of both sexes, and one or two males (known as a coalition if more than one) who mate with the adult females (although extremely large prides, consisting of up to 30 individuals, have been observed).
The second organizational behaviour is labeled nomads, who range widely and move about sporadically, either singularly or in pairs. Pairs are more frequent among related males who have been excluded from their birth pride. A female who becomes a nomad has much greater difficulty joining a new pride, as the females in a pride are related, and they reject most attempts by an unrelated female to join their family group.
The area a pride occupies is called a pride area, whereas that by a nomad is a range.
Both males and females defend the pride against intruders. Some individual lions consistently lead the defence against intruders, while others lag behind. Lions tend to assume specific roles in the pride. Subadult males, must leave the pride when they reach maturity at around 2–3 years of age.
Lions are powerful animals that usually hunt in coordinated groups and stalk their chosen prey. However, they are not particularly known for their stamina—for instance, a lioness' heart makes up only 0.57 percent of her body weight (a male's is about 0.45 percent of his body weight), whereas a hyena's heart is close to 1 percent of its body weight. Thus, they only run fast in short bursts, and need to be close to their prey before starting the attack. They take advantage of factors that reduce visibility; many kills take place near some form of cover or at night. They sneak up to the victim until they reach a distance of around 30 metres or less.
The lioness is the one who does the hunting for the pride, since the lioness is more aggressive by nature. The male lion usually stays and watches its young while waiting for the lionesses to return from the hunt. Typically, several lionesses work together and encircle the herd from different points. Once they have closed with a herd, they usually target the closest prey. 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.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). Smaller prey, though, may simply be killed by a swipe of a lion's paw.
If nearby the hunt, males have a tendency to dominate the kill once the lionesses have succeeded. They are more likely to share with the cubs than with the lionesses, but rarely share food they have killed by themselves. Smaller prey is eaten at the location of the hunt, thereby being shared among the hunters; when the kill is larger it often is dragged to the pride area. There is more sharing of larger kills, although pride members often behave aggressively toward each other as each tries to consume as much food as possible
Most lionesses will have reproduced by the time they are four years of age. Lions do not mate at any specific time of year, and the females are polyestrous.
Usually, the mother does not integrate herself and her cubs back into the pride until the cubs are six to eight weeks old.
When first introduced to the rest of the pride, the cubs initially lack confidence when confronted with adult lions other than their mother. However, they soon begin to immerse themselves in the pride life, playing amongst themselves or attempting to initiate play with the adults. Lionesses with cubs of their own are more likely to be tolerant of another lioness's cubs than lionesses without cubs. The tolerance of the male lions towards the cubs varies—sometimes, a male will patiently let the cubs play with his tail or his mane, whereas another may snarl and bat the cubs away.