The lion, Panthera leo (1758)

Phylum : Chordata
Class : Mammalia
Order : Carnivora
Family : Felidae
Genus : Panthera
Species : P. leo
Subspecies : P.l. persica, P.l. senegalensis, P.l. leo, azandica, P.l. nubica, P.l. bleyenberghi, P.l. krugeri, P.l. melanocheita

  • Early Pleistocene/Recent (Vulnerable)
  • 2,3 m long and 200 kg (size)
  • Africa and Pakistan (map)

The earliest lion-like cat (Panthera leo fossilis) was discovered at Laetoli in Tanzania and dated to the late Pliocene, 5.0 – 1.8 million years ago.  The first undisputed record of a lion was discovered at Olduvai Bed I, in Tanzania, dating to 1.87 – 1.7 Ma.  During the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene lions become increasingly common, coinciding with large scale vegetation change from forests and woodlands towards savannah-type grasslands, that heralded the evolution of many ungulates and ground-living primates.
Broadly mimicking human dispersal, and corresponding to climatic changes and subsequent vegetation change towards grasslands, influencing prey base distribution, lions migrated out of Africa 800 – 100,000 years ago during the middle Pleistocene into Europe, Asia, and the America’s, as far south as Peru . The lion became the most widespread large terrestrial mammal on Earth, its success possibly as a result of a more developed brain compared to other large predators of the time, such as Smilodon, the sabre-toothed cat as well as the possibility that their social structure had already evolved to include group-living.
A population bottleneck c. 320 – 190,000 years ago created a single population of the modern lion that dispersed throughout Africa and south-west Eurasia, replacing earlier lion populations, although the geographical origin of the modern lion remains undetermined.  This single origin replacement model mimics the ‘recent African origin’ model of human evolution and dispersal to replace hominids elsewhere during the same time period.

Analysis of the food intake needs of eight extant felids suggests that parasitism benefits lions more than any other species and that it was in the interest of early lions to form groups to increase opportunities to obtain food by parasitism. The parasitized lion gains advantages from this association by reducing intra- and interspecific competition through joint defence of kills it made.  Additional advantages of group living may have then become apparent, fixing the behaviour in the species.  These advantages include; that in areas / times of prey scarcity hunting cooperation increases food intake per capita - although this advantage may not apply in all locations; defence of carcasses against competitors; increased reproductive success; for cooperative defence of cubs; and, maintaining a territory within which to forage.  Male grouping behaviour likely evolved in response to female grouping behaviour as such grouping increases success in pride take-over and length of pride tenure.

The African lion is subject to increasing anthropomorphic threats that threaten its survival.  The species has evolved social and reproductive behaviours that require space, the greatest threat therefore being an increasing human population and the subsequent land conversion to meet the needs of people.  Humans however have induced additional threats by introducing disease and the impacts of climate change to lions, whose populations continue to decline.