Species Account
Panthera leo: a species account

"Lion: the fiercest and most magnanimous of the four footed beasts" 
Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

Welcome to our comprehensive guide to the African lion.  You will find here, and using the quicklinks to the right, a wealth of information to let you know about this fascinating species.  Throughout the text you will see bracketed numbers that refer to the sources of information, listed on the references page.

Let's start our journey of discovery with Etymology, where did the lion get its name?

The lion’s name derives from the Latin Leo [1]; the ancient Greek λέων (leon) [2] with the Hebrew word lavi possibly also related [3]. The generic component of its scientific designation, Panthera¸ is presumed to derive from Greek pan- (“all”) and ther (“beast”) but this may be folk etymology. The name came into English through the classical languages, but panther, is probably of East Asian origin meaning “the yellowish animal” [4]

"Lion" in various languages

Afrikaans: Leeu
Swahili: Simba
isiNdebele: Indua
isiZulu: Ingonyama
isiXhosa: Ingonyama
seSotho: Tau
seTswana: Tau
Shona: Shumba
Shangaan: Nghala
Venda: Ndau
Nama/Damara: Xamm
Herero: Shitona
Ovambo: Shinga


Taxonomic Classification

The lion was first classified as Felis leo by Linnaeus in 1758 from a specimen found in Constantine, Algeria

The lion (Panthera leo) [5] is a mammal and second largest in the family Felidae, being slightly smaller than the tiger (Panthera tigris) [6]. The leopard (Panthera pardus) and the jaguar (Panthera onca) are the two other cats that make up the four "big cats" in the genus Panthera.

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Subfamily: Pantherinae
Genus: Panthera
Species: Panthera leo (P. leo)

Origin of a Species

Fossil evidence suggests that the earliest lion-like cat (P. l. fossilis) appeared at Laetoli in Tanzania in East Africa during the Late Pliocene (5.0–1.8 million years ago) [7].

In a pattern broadly resembling that of humans, lions migrated out of Africa during the Middle Pleistocene (800–100,000 years ago - kyr) into Europe, Asia and North America extending as far south as Peru [8] – [9] and becoming the most widespread large terrestrial mammals during the Late Pleistocene (100–10 kyr) [7],[10].

Recent genetic studies have suggested that at least two distinct lineages of lion inhabited western Eurasia at the end of the Pleistocene: the Holarctic cave lion (P. l. spelaea), and the modern lion (P .l. leo) [11].

It has been suggested that a population bottleneck of the modern lion (ca. 55–200 kyr) allowed a single population of lions to replace older populations in Africa and south-western Eurasia [9].

This single origin replacement model of modern lion evolution provides a parallel to the ‘recent African origin’ model of human evolution (in comparison to the ‘multiregional evolution’ model), in which modern Homo sapiens evolved in Africa ca. 200 kyr and went on to replace hominids (e.g. the Neanderthals) elsewhere [8].


Sub-species Classification

Although modern lions genetically differ from leopards and tigers by 13.8% and 19.8%, respectively, differences from Holartic cave lions of 5 – 6% greatly exceed those among modern African lions (around 0 - 1.22%). Lions do show substantial variation within populations but only limited between population differences; like other wide-ranging large mammals [12].

Twenty-four sub-species classifications have been suggested for modern lions [13] based on external morphological differences in different geographical regions, such as; body size, coat thickness and colour, mane size and colouration as well as the extent of retention of juvenile spots into adulthood. However, recent mitochondrial DNA sequence variation analysis suggests that lions across Africa are the same and sub-Saharan lions should be considered a single sub-species Panthera leo leo [14]-[15].

Some even question the sub-species classification of the Asiatic lion, currently classified as P.l. persica, due to the limited genetic difference (1.1%) to African lions [12] – this difference being smaller than those found between human racial groups [16].

The IUCN currently recognizes two extant sub-species of lion [17]:

African lion Panthera leo leo (Linnaeus, 1758)
Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica (Meyer, 1826)