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Animal of the month: 10 facts about lions

Lions have enchanted humans since early Antiquity, and were even represented in European cave paintings from 35,000 years ago. They are regularly the main characters in folklore and allegory, appearing everywhere from African folktales to the Bible. It is not hard to see why lions are so ubiquitously revered. Their fearsome yet stunning appearance, combined with their endearing hunting tactics and formidable roar, answers any questions as to why early societies named the lion ‘King of the Beasts’, and indeed explains why this name is still used today. Lions have pervaded a plethora of aspects of today’s society, regularly featuring in films and documentaries, appearing as statues, and having English pubs named after them.

We wanted to share some lesser-known facts about these well-known beasts, which, despite their constant appearances in popular culture, you may not have known about them.

1. Extended family

Lions belong to the felidae family, and are one of the five species of the genus panthera. The felidae family includes all extant and extinct cats, whose notable characteristics include large brains, powerful jaws, and skeletons specialized for leaping.

Their panthera family members are tigers, jaguars, leopards, and snow leopards. Lions share their habitat with leopards, although their diets differ enough for them to not cross paths very often.

2. Immediate family

Groups of lions, called prides, usually consist of large groups of adult females, cubs, and one or two adult males. Male lions stay in pairs for most of their lives, growing up together as cubs in a pride before leaving the pride to lead a nomadic lifestyle. In their lifetimes they range from pride to pride, breeding, living with their cubs, and protecting the pride from intruders. Sometimes, males will not have the chance to grow up with other male cubs, so must therefore become solitary nomads. Once they begin their nomadic lifestyle, they usually search for another solitary nomad, with whom they can pair up.

Picture credit: ‘Two brothers’ by Gary Whyte. Public Domain via Unsplash.

3. What they eat

Lions eat large hoofed animals, such as gazelles, zebras, antelopes, wildebeest, giraffes, and wild hogs, and they will also eat the young of larger mammals, such as elephants and rhinos – if they can get past their parents. Lions seem to prefer eating zebras and wildebeest, although the former in particular can often prove very difficult to catch.

Lions have also been known the eat rodents, hares, small birds and reptiles. Lions living in the Kalahari Desert also regularly eat porcupines!

4. Where do lions come from?

Lions have been on quite a journey throughout their existence. Archaeological evidence has determined the widespread presence of lions in Europe and North America until around 10,000 years ago. Aristotle speaks of lions in Greece around 300 BCE, and those partaking in the Crusades frequently reported encounters with lions from the 1st century onwards CE. However, due to human expansion and hostility towards them, lions were slowly but surely wiped out from most of the world by the early 1900s. A small population of the Asiatic lion remains in the Gir Forest in India, but lions only otherwise live out of captivity in Africa.

5. Fission-fusion

Whilst most would assume that lions live together in their prides 24/7, this is not actually how they work. Lions are an example of a fission-fusion group dynamic – each lion may spend days or weeks living on its own or in a small subgroup. One reason for this is to take part in hunting their food. Lions, contrary to popular belief, do not always hunt in groups, only doing so when prey is particularly difficult to catch – such as when they are based in harsh environments, or if the animal is much larger than them.

6. Lions in the Bible and in Architecture

Lions are frequently mentioned in the Bible, and are often used as symbols of strength, fortitude, and courage. The character of the lion was altered slightly in the middle ages to include attributes such as magnanimity, watchfulness, and vigilance, using this vigilance to detect and defend against sin. It is for this reason that lions are often featured in Christian architecture, particularly in Italian churches.

Lions are also seen as a symbol of the Resurrection, as the Physiologus use them in an allegory for the event. In the book, the lion’s cub is born dead and remains dead for three days, before the father breathes on it and it receives life.

Image credit: ‘Parma, duomo, leoni’ by Palickap. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

7. Roaring

Although lions are often depicted as fearsome beasts standing boldly and roaring for no reason, lions actually have many reasons for belting out a roar. Lions can recognise each other’s roars like humans can recognise each other’s voices, and use them as a means of communication over long distances. Males often, for example, roar when they are patrolling their territory in order to reassure females that they are safe. Roaring is a truly excellent means of communication, as lion roars can be heard up to 8km away from the lion itself!

8. Lions + rain = success

Climate change has had an impact on lion populations, except, not in the way that you might expect. Studies have shown that climate change has led to increased rainfall in the Serengeti, during which wildebeest, on which lions feed, tend to stay within the forests of the savannah. This is, conveniently, where the lions are based, so prey is much easier to access. As a result, cubs have much more food, and are therefore likelier to survive into adulthood.

9. Threats to their home

On the other hand, while climate change may not be having too much of an adverse effect on lions, humans are still threatening lions’ survival. The booming agricultural businesses of Africa demand large expanses of land to be cleared and cultivated, which is inconsistent with the large territories required by lions to hunt in. The range of the Asian lion was reduced to a single reserve in less than a century, and a similar pattern may soon take place in Africa.

10. Three Lions

Lions have been featured as emblems in heraldry since the early 1100s. The arms of England feature three lions passant gardant, i.e. walking and showing full face. The first lion represents Rollo, Duke of Normandy, and the second that of Maine, which was added to Normandy. These were borne by William the Conqueror and his descendants. Henry II added the third lion to represent the duchy of Aquitaine, which came to him through his wife Eleanor.

You didn’t think we weren’t going to make a reference to the almighty 3 Lions by the Lightning Seeds, did you? Fun fact: the lyric ‘it’s coming home’ is a reference to the fact that the game we now know as association football was first codified in England.

Featured image credit: ‘Lion cubs on the Masai Mara’ by Christopher Michel. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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