African Lion

ORDER: Carnivora

FAMILY: Felidae

GENUS: Panthera


Typically a mature male stands 4 feet at the shoulder and is 8.5 feet long, plus tail. He'll average 450 pounds. Females are considerably smaller, weighing less than 300 pounds. Lions reach full weight at age 6. Adult lions usually have a plain unspotted coat, light brown to dark ochre in color. Cubs are marked with spots which sometimes persist on the legs and belly until they are fully grown. Male lions have a brown mane, which tends to grow darker and fuller as the animal ages. The tail has a black tuft at the end.

Primary habitat for African lions are grassy plains, savanna and open woodlands. They can be found in: Senegal east to Somalia, East Africa, Angola, northern Namibia and from Kalahari east to Mozambique and northern Natal. Thousands of years ago, lions had the widest intercontinental distribution for a large land mammal; they were commonly found throughout southern Europe, southern Asia, eastern and central India, over the whole of the African continent and into the Americas. 2,000 years ago lions were extirpated from Europe and within the last 150 years from the Middle East and Northern Africa. Today, with the exception of some 300 highly protected animals in the Gir National Park of India, the only naturally-occurring lions are found in Africa. Lions do not live in heavy forests and jungles and they do not inhabit desert areas due to a scarcity of game.

Carnivorous. Lions feed on a variety of large and medium-size prey. They prefer wildebeest (or gnu) to all others when the annual migration brings the vast herds through the pride's range. Otherwise they eat buffalo, zebra, antelope, giraffe, and warthogs. They also steal kills and carrion from other predators.

Lions are the only cats that live in large family groups. Each pride differs in size and formation, but a typical pride consists of two males and several females and a variable number of cubs. Females are usually sisters and/or cousins that have grown up together. When the pride hunts as a group they employ an ambush technique that forces large prey into the waiting paws of the males. Females have the speed but lack the body weight to knock down large "family size" prey such as the wildebeest. Despite their tremendous power and adaptive efficiency, lions are more likely to fail than succeed in their attempts to kill. Females mature in about two years, males a few years later. Sub adult males are driven out at 2-1/2 to 3 years of age; young males commonly form bachelor groups in the wild while developing skills to form their own pride. "Coalitions" are formed when an all-male social group bonds in a territory. All big cats are induced ovulators, i.e. release of the ovum is brought about by the act of mating. The period of gestation for the lioness is between 105 and 118 days and usually three or four cubs will be born. Only one in five will survive the first year. When game is scarce the dominance hierarchy based on size and age quickly becomes apparent. The youngest die first. Life span in the wild is 15-18 years, in captivity 25-30 years.

Backward-curved horny papillae cover the upper surface of the tongue; these are useful both in holding onto meat and removing parasites during grooming. The roar of a lion can be heard up to five miles away and can be most intimidating up close. Territorial roaring is usually heard an hour after sunset. When separated they roar to let each other know where they are; females often call their cubs by roaring. The mature male's mane not only makes him appear larger but protects his throat from his mortal enemies-other marauding lions and the hyenas after his cubs or kill.

A lion is a digitigrade, or toe walker; that is his heel doesn't touch the ground. His loud roar is made possible by the cartilage in his throat having ossified into bone (referred to as the Hyoid structure). This is true of all the big cat or "roaring" species. The smaller cats with the softer throat structure can only meow. Lion coalitions (all male social groups) are often seen in the wild, but rarely in zoos. Oakland Zoo currently has no plans for females or a breeding program. Instead we are excited to share more about the coalition behavior of lions.

The lions can be found in the African Savanna.

African lions are listed as Vulnerable by IUCN with their population trend as decreasing. African lion numbered perhaps 200,000 individuals in 1991. It's estimated that fewer than 30,000 lions remain in the wild - a decrease of 30% in the past twenty years. Threats include hunting, human-wildlife conflict, human encroachment resulting in habitat loss, and prey-base depletion. Oakland Zoo supports lions in the wild through our conservation partner, the Uganda Carnivore Program. To celebrate lions, learn more about the conservation challenges they face in the wild, and what you can do to help.


  1. MacDonald, David. 1984. Encyclopedia of Mammals, Equinox, Oxford.
  2. Mitchell, Bruce. 1979. Big Cats, Galley Press.
  3. Moss, Cynthia. 1982. Portraits in the Wild, University of Chicago Press.
  4. Owen, Wendell. 1991. Great Cats, Rodale Press.
  5. National Geographic, Vol. 181, Nos. 1, 5.
  6. Zoobooks, Lion. 1989. Volume 6, Number 9.
  7. Oakland Zoo Lion Press Release from 7/11/16.