Huh. Well, this is interesting. Today is the first day of March, and we're talking about lions. Is there any truth to the folk saying that if March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb? Let's hope so, for my frozen eastern and northern friends.
The Lion (Panthera leo) is one of the four largest cat species in the world. It is second in size only to the Tiger, and is unique among big cats - and cats in general - in that it is a social cat. When people today think of Lions, they think of Africa, but actually until the late Pleistocene era, Lions could be found all across Eurasia and the Americas as well. Most male Lions have a large, impressive mane around their head, face and shoulders. Female Lions, called Lionesses, have smooth coats. This, too, makes it unique among cats, as most species have no obvious sexual dimorphism.
Lions today can be found only in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. They have disappeared from their historical ranges in Southwest Asia and Northern Africa. A Lion's size depends upon its environment, but in general male Lions can weigh up to 550 pounds (250 Kg) and females 401 pounds (182 Kg). Males can measure 8 feet, 2 inches in body length (2.5 m) and females can measure 5 feet, 9 inches (1.75 m). They are, on average, taller at the shoulder than Tigers, although Tigers outweigh them. African Lions tend to be larger than Asian Lions. Lions have the loudest roar of any cat.
Lionesses form the social backbone of any pride. In most cases, Lionesses in the same pride are related to each other - sisters, mothers, daughters. They have little tolerance for outsiders. The size of the pride changes mostly with the births and deaths of the Lionesses, and only rarely will a Lioness leave her pride and become a nomad. Lions who live in prides are called residents; Lions who wander alone are called nomads. Average prides consist of about six Lionesses and their cubs, male and female. There is usually one male around who will mate with the Lionesses, although sometimes there are two. Two or more male lions in a pride are called a coalition. When male cubs reach two to three years of age, their maternal pride begins to exclude them, forcing them to move on as nomads. Nomads may travel and hunt together in small groups (usually two or three), but this is not as strong a bond as exists among a pride. Female nomads have a harder time going from nomad to resident, as Lionesses generally do not allow non-related females to join their pride.
Lionesses do the bulk of hunting for the pride. They are more effective hunters than male Lions - they are smaller, agile, and faster than males, and their smooth coat allows them to stalk prey more inconspicuously. Small kills are shared at the kill spot among the hunters, while large kills are brought back to the pride area to share. Males do not share food they have hunted and killed themselves, and if they happen to be near when the Lionesses make a kill, it's not uncommon for them to take possession of the carcass and eat most of it themselves. They will share with cubs, though.
There are currently eight recognized subspecies of Lion:
- Panthera leo leo, the Barbary Lion. Originally found from Morocco to Egypt. Now extinct.
- Panthera leo persica, the Persian or Asiatic Lion. Originally found from Turkey to Pakistan, now only 400 are left in the wild, near Gir Forest in India.
- Panthera leo senegalensis, the West African Lion. Found from Senegal to the Central African Republic.
- Panthera leo azandica, the Congo Lion. Found in the northeastern parts of the Congo.
- Panthera leo nubica, the Masai or Tsavo Lion. Found from Ethiopia to Mozambique.
- Panthera leo bleyenberghi, the Katanga Lion. Found from Namibia to Zimbabwe.
- Panthera leo krugeri, the Transvaal Lion. Found in southeastern Africa.
- Panthera leo melanochaita, the Cape Lion. Found along the Cape. Now Extinct.
Lionesses will give birth to a litter of one to four cubs after a 110-day gestation period. Lionesses have their cubs away from the pride, and will hunt for themselves while the cubs are still in their first eight weeks of life. During that time, she will move them from den to den, in order to avoid saturating any one spot with her and her cubs' scent. This helps to keep other predators from discovering them. Lionesses will generally synchronize their reproductive cycles in order to have cubs roughly at the same time as each other, which makes all the cubs about the same size and age, and gives all of them more of a chance at survival. Cubs will nurse from their mother or any other nursing female in the pride, allowing the Lionesses to share the burden of feeding the young.