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African and Asian Lions (Panthera leo) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History and Nomenclature

Taxonomy

  • African and Asian populations considered a single species (Bertola et al. 2016)
  • Kitchener et al. (2017) revised lion subspecies
    • Panthera leo leo
      • Panthera leo persica now synomyous with P. l. leo
    • Panthera leo melanochaita — southern and East Africa
      • Considered locally extinct until recently
      • In 2017, discovery that southern and East Africa lions are closely related
  • Taxonomic nomenclature under review by IUCN
    • Bertola et al. (2016) propose six major groups, based on mtDNA evidence:
      • Northern group: West Africa, Central Africa, India
      • Southern group: North East Africa, East/Southern, South West
    • IUCN cites Bertola et al. (2015), who propose 2 groups of 4 genetically distinct clusters (based on mtDNA and autosomal DNA):
      • Northern group: [1] West/Central Africa and [2] India
        • West/Central populations small and isolated (Bertola et al. 2011; Bertola et al. 2015; Bertola et al. 2016; Bauer et al. 2016)
          • Relatedness to India population may be explained by hyperarid conditions during Holocene glacial periods (Bertola et al. 2011)
      • Southern group: [3] East Africa and [4] southern Africa
      • Split within Africa (between West/Central and East/Southern) also observed in numerous other savannah mammals (Bertola et al. 2016)
        • May be explained by climate-driven expansions of African rain forest and desert, which affected dispersal patterns of many species
    • Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN/SSC’s Cat Specialist Group has provisionally proposed a different split based on Bertola et al. (2015)
      • P. l. leo – North Africa/Asia, West Africa, Central Africa
        • Asian lions nested within diversity of African lions (Barnett et al. 2014; Bertola et al. 2016)
      • P. l. melanochaita – South and East Africa
  • Previously, two subspecies of extant lion, Panthera leo, "traditionally" recognized (Mazák 2010; Bertola et al. 2015; Bertola et al. 2016)
    • P. l. leo
      • Sub-Saharan Africa [African subpopulations]
      • Lions from North Africa (currently extinct) more closely related (genetically) to lions in Asia
    • P. l. persica
      • Single population in the Gir Forest of India
  • Traditional split between “African” and “Asian” lions as distinct subspecies may be untenable (Barnett et al. 2014; Bertola et al. 2015; Bertola et al. 2016)
    • Does not fully reflect lion genetic diversity (Bertola et al. 2011)
  • Previous taxonomies have recognized six or more subgroups of lion (Shoemaker and Pfaff 1997; Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)  
    • Mainly used as “handy labels” to describe geographic variation
    • P. l. azandica (J.A. Allen 1924)
      • Northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo
    • P. l. bleyenberghi (Lönnberg 1914)
      • Southern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, and Angola
    • P. l. krugeri (Roberts 1929)
      • Northwestern (Kalahari), north and southeastern South Africa
    • P. l. nubica (de Blainville 1843)
      • Known as the East African lion
      • Northeastern and East Africa
      • Proposed races: massaica, somaliensis, and roosevelti
    • P. l. senegalensis (Meyer 1826)
      • West Africa, east to the Central African Republic
    • P. l. persica (Meyer 1826)
      • Known as the Asian lion
      • Restricted to the Gir Forest, India
      • In the 19th century, ranged from Iraq to central India

Nomenclature

  • Genus: Panthera (Oken 1816) (Merriam-Webster Dictionary online; Oxford English Dictionary online)
    • Greek pan- meaning “all” and thēr meaning “prey”; otherwise translated as a “predator of all animals (or beasts)”
    • Classical Latin panthera is derived from the Greek
  • Species: leo (Linnaeus 1758)
    • Literally, Latin for “lion” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary online)

Synonyms (Bauer et al. 2016)

  • Felis leo (Linnaeus, 1758)

Common names (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; Bauer et al. 2016)

  • Lion, African lion, Asiatic lion, Indian Lion (English)
  • Lion d'Afrique, Lion d’Asie (French)
  • Löwe (German)
  • León, león asiático, león indostánico (Spanish)

African names for lion are numerous

  • Simba (Swahili)
  • Shumba (Shona)
  • Ingonyama (Xhosa, Zulu)
  • o-lɛ́mbáláŋ, ɔl-ŋárurúmi, etc. (Maa) (Maa Dictionary  2008)
  • Tau (Sotho)
  • Zaki (Hausa) (Perkins 2016)
  • Names derived from the Persian word for lion, shir (India) (Rangarajan 2013)
    • See The Story of Asia’s Lions, p. 226 (Divyabhanusinh 2005)

Other phrases of interest (Schaller 1972, Perkins 2016)

  • “A pride of lions”
    • Originates from the 15th century
    • Not commonly used until the 1930s
  •  “The king of beasts"
    • Nicknamed for the distinctive mane of males and the lion's ecological role as an apex predator
    • The larger, more powerful tiger was not known to Europeans when they first encountered lions
  • "The king of the jungle”
    • Even though lions do not live in jungle habitat

Evolutionary History

Species diversity of cats

  • About 38 modern (extant) species, family Felidae (Davis et al. 2010)
    • Nearly all endangered or threatened
      • Among the most threatened groups of mammals (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Represents a small subset of fossil cat diversity (Werdelin 2013)
  • Two main groups (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; Werdelin 2013)
    • Pantherinae or “big cats”
      • About 7 species
      • Genera
        • Panthera (only present in Africa)
          • Lion, tiger, jaguar, leopard, snow leopard
          • Often called “roaring cats” (Werdelin 2013)
        • Neofelis (only present in Asia)
          • Clouded leopards
            • 2 species
    • Felinae or “small cats”
      • About 31 species
      • Genera: Pardofelis, Catopuma, Leptailurus, Profelis, Caracal, Leopardus, Lynx, Acinonyx, Puma, Otocolobus, Prionailurus, Felis

Diversification of modern cats (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)

  • Divergence from other carnivores (O'Brien and Johnson 2005; O'Brien and Johnson 2007)
    • Ca. 55 mya: first felid diverged from a carnivorous, common ancestor shared with canids
  • Emergence of modern felid groups (O'Brien and Johnson 2005; O'Brien and Johnson 2007)
    • 10-11 mya in Asia
      • Common ancestor of all modern felid groups
  • Divergence of modern pantherine cats (roaring cats and clouded leopards)
    • Panthera and Neofelis form a monophyletic group (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
      • Common ancestor 6 mya
    • Clouded leopards (Neofelis) diverged early in the pantherine lineage (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Great cats (Panthera) emerged 2-5 mya during the late Pliocene (Davis et al. 2010; Werdelin and Dehghani 2011)
    • Rapid radiation within the Pliocene (Davis et al. 2010)
  • Divergence of lions, leopards, and jaguars (Davis et al. 2010; Jackson 2010)
    • Ca. 2 mya from a shared common ancestor
    • Monophyletic group
  • Origins of lions (Barnett et al. 2006; Barnett et al. 2014)
    • Sub-Saharan Africa, possibly eastern-southern Africa
    • North and West African populations diverged ca. 51,000 years ago
    • Possibly two separate excursions into Asia by lions from North Africa
      • Initially, near end of the Pleistocene, ca. 21,000 years ago

What scientists use to determine evolutionary relationships in modern cats (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009, except as noted)

  • Today, combined morphological and molecular studies used to construct subspecies
    • Skull measurements (craniometrics) (e.g., Christiansen and Harris 2009; Mazák 2010)
  • Historically, anatomical and morphological traits
    • Used exclusively through most of the 20th century
    • Formerly thought that presence or absence of an elastic hyoid ligament, below the tongue, determined group
      • Was formerly thought to affect a species' ability to roar or purr
      • Not used today
        • Learned that some big cats not able to roar, although elastic hyoid  is present
        • Ability to roar and purr instead determined by structure of vocal folds within the larynx
    • Additional trait used: atypical claw anatomy of the cheetah
  • Molecular/genetic analyses
    • Began towards the end of the 20th century; used today as the scientific standard
    • Compare mitochondrial DNA and nuclear microsatellites
    • Molecular clock dating: mutation rates used to examine divergences among species (e.g., Davis et al. 2010)

Cultural History

History

  • Lions associated with kings and royal power in many cultures (Guggisberg 1963; Divyabhanusinh 2005; Jackson 2010)
    • Dates back millennia
    • Persia, Assyria, Egypt, various societies of Africa
    • Represent power, courage, and dignity
  • Admired and tamed, but also hunted (Divyabhanusinh 2005)
    • For sport
    • For spectacle
    • To increase human safety
  • Ritualized lion hunts (Guggisberg 1963; Divyabhanusinh 2005)
    • Assyria
    • Egypt
    • Kings fought lions on foot (with swords and arm padding), using nets, from chariots, and from specially trained horses
    • Commissioned artworks to depict their lion fights
  • Sometimes caught lions in traps or bred in captivity for the purpose of early ‘canned hunts’ (Guggisberg 1963; Divyabhanusinh 2005)
  • Thousands of lions killed in arenas by Romans as public spectacle (Schaller 1972; Jackson 2010)
    • 1st-4th century AD
    • Lions shipped to cities from Africa
    • Fought gladiators and criminals
      • Punishment called “condemnation to the wild beasts”
  • Lions kept as pets, in various capacities, until recent times (Divyabhanusinh 2005)
    • By Egyptian pharaohs to (Schaller 1972; Divyabhanusinh 2005; Jackson 2010)
      • Guard their throne
      • Accompany them into battle
      • Be companions
    • Some queens also kept lions
      • Ex. Queen T’amar of Georgia (reign 1184-1212)
    • Iraq
      • As recently the 1910s
  • Lions featured in numerous medieval books and art works (Jackson 2010)
  • Significant in many religions (Jackson 2010, and as noted)
    • Buddhism
      • Associated with Siddhartha, the Buddha; his teachings and disciples
      • Lions depicted as
        • Bodhisattvas
          • Symbolize wisdom and enlightenment
        • Protectors of people meditating
    • Christianity
      • Negative references: devil, hell, torment, uncontrollable drives
      • Positive references: Breath of Life, resurrection, harmony, peace
      • Representations
        • Mane as halo
        • “Winged lions” (e.g., St. Mark)
        • Lion and the lamb (New Testament)
        • As a powerful animal (Divyabhanusinh 2005)
          • Appear in stories of Samson, Daniel and King Darius, Ezekiel, etc.
    • Islam
      • Lions associated with ascent to Heaven, realms of heaven, and angels
    • Hebrew Bible
      • Over 200 passages refer to lions
      • Symbol of Messianic promise and redemption
  • Cultures and empires
    • Ancient Egypt
      • Lion deities associated with the sun, flood waters, maternity, fertility, war, hunting, concepts of “yesterday” and “tomorrow” (Leach 1984; Divyabhanusinh 2005; Jackson 2010)
      • Lion cults in some cities (Divyabhanusinh 2005)
        • Captive lions held in temples and worshiped
        • Priests use in performing rituals
        • Honored, treated as sacred
          • Also hunted
    • Persia and Arabia (Divyabhanusinh 2005; Jackson 2010)
      • Lion constellations
        • “Leo”
          • Indentified by Sumerian astronomers over 4,000 years ago
      • Lions hunted extensively
      • Body parts used in traditional medicine

 

Symbolism, culture, and folklore

  • Lions: symbolic representations (Guggisberg 1963; Leach 1984; Divyabhanushinh 2005; Jackson 2010)
    • Power and strength
    • “The hunter”
    • “The guardian”
    • Courage, bravery
      • Ex. “Richard the Lionheart”
    • Dignity
    • Nobility
    • Peace and good luck
    • Wisdom
    • Motherhood, maternity, fertility
    • The sun
    • Water
      • Associated with flood waters and the Nile River
    • The harvest
      • Lion = medieval zodiac sign of July (summer harvest)
    • A reincarnation of dead ancestors or tribal leaders; supernatural spirit
    • Messiahs, liberation, and purification
      • Ex. ‘Lion of Judah’
    • Justice and mercy (Triumph of Reason over Chaos)
      • Pliny the Elder describes lions as showing compassion
  • Male lions more often depicted than female lions (Jackson 2010)
    • Avoid confusion with other cats
    • Symbols of male heroes and kings
  • Features attributed in folk stories (Leach 1984)
    • Noble
      • In European stories (though not in all cultures)
      • Lion and the Mouse
        • One of Aesop’s fables
        • Lion captures mouse, but generously lets it go. Later, when trapped by hunters, the grateful mouse sets the lion free by chewing through the ropes binding the lion.
    • Guardians or helpful animals (e.g., lion leads lost characters out of forest)
    • The animal duped by trickster animals, such as Hare, Mongoose, or Jackal
      • Lion’s status as “king” or “royal” challenged
    • Tender animals
      • Gentleness with virgins
  • Other representations (Jackson 2010)
    • “The Cowardly Lion”
      • Derived from centuries-old heraldic symbolism of a lion with its tail tucked between its legs
      • Inspired “Lion” character in The Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum
    •  “The Lazy Lion”
      • Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871)
      • Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605)
        • Don Quixote tries to fight a lion to prove his bravery, but the lion is too lazy to leave its cage
    • “The Friendly Lion”
      • People motivated to develop relationships with predators, despite an instinctual fear of them
      • Elsa in Born Free (1960)
      • Fable of Androcles (1st century)
        • Escaped slave and criminal Androcles takes refuge in a lion’s den
          • Removes a thorn from a lion’s paw
          • Both later captured, but their friendship saves them
      • Featured in biographies of several Christian holy men and women (Jackson 2010)
        • St. Macarious
        • St. Mary of Egypt
        • St. Jerome and Gerasimos
  • Lion hunters of legend (Guggisberg 1963; Jackson 2010)
  • Stories of alliances between lions and legendary heroes (Jackson 2010)
    • Many from medieval Europe
    • Emperor Cassidorous
    • Percival
    • Guy of Warwick
    • Octavian
  • Admired by many African peoples
    • Celebrated in African stories, proverbs, and dances
    • Lion worship rare outside the Nile River Delta (Jackson 2010)
      • “Surprising, since the lion is indigenous to Africa and an essential element of African folklore” (Jackson 2010)
  • Maasai culture
    • Chiefs said to be reincarnated as lions (Guggisberg 1963; Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Masaai warriors once required to hunt a lion to demonstrate strength and ‘manhood’ (Ikanda and Packer 2008; Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
      • Warriors called Morani or Moran
      • Ritual called ámayio or ol-amayu (Spencer 1988; Maa Dictionary 2008; Ikanda and Packer 2008; Hazzah et al. 2009)
      • Morani would encourage a lion to attack them, impaling it on a spear
        • Work together as a group (Spencer 1988)
          • Moral principles of courage and altruism amongst hunters
        • Mane prized as a trophy (Spencer 1988)
          • If large enough, would be shared
          • Displayed prominently in the village
          • During ceremonies, worn as headdress
      • Ritual banned in the 1970s (Ikanda and Packer 2008)
        • Still practiced covertly
  • Some native African hunters would follow a pride and later chase away the lions, stealing the pride’s kill (Guggisberg 1963)
    • Protected lions from sport hunters
  • Lion dances (Guggisberg 1963; Jackson 2010)
    • Historically performed throughout Africa, where people encounter lions
    • Associated with the hunt, rituals of fertility, or rituals of male puberty
    • Some dances mimicked a hunt
      • Participants dressed up as lions and those the lion attacks
    • Lions prominent in Chinese celebrations, though lions not native to China
      • Originated in China over 1,000 years ago
      • Dancers sometime mimic naturalistic lion behaviors, such as rubbing and smelling
  • Lion body parts in rituals, witchcraft, or as charms/talismans (Guggisberg 1963; Leach 1984)
    • African and European cultures
    • Manes, claws, teeth, bezoar stones from the stomach, etc.
    • Eating parts of a lion believed to have health benefits
      • Heart for courage
      • Eyes for better eyesight
      • Ears for better hearing
      • Lionskin to cure hemorrhoids
    • Fats used in some burial rituals and for courage during hunts
    • Occasionally, tame lions were toured about to excise people’s evil spirits (see p. 276-277 of Guggisberg 1963)
  • Also see: Cultural depictions of lions

 

Films and performace art

  • Documentary films (selected titles)
    • India’s Wandering Lions (Nature) – 2016, PBS
      • People in India safeguard lions from extinction
    • Blood Lions – 2015, Regulus Vision and Wildlands
      • Examines the practice and economics of breeding and releasing captive lions for “canned hunts”
    • Lion Ark – 2013, ADI Films
      • 25 lions rescued from illegal traveling circuses
    • The Last Lions – 2011, National Geographic
      • Survival story of lioness Ma di Tau and her cubs
    • Superpride – 2009, National Geographic
      • Features the Serengeti Wildlife Refuge, home of 300 prides
    • Relentless Enemies – 2007, National Geographic
      • Lions of Tsavo prey upon water buffalo
    • Africa's Wildlife: Lions – 2007, National Geographic
      • Lions in Botswana defend territory
      • Lions in Zimbabwe aggregate at an African water hole
    • The Vanishing Lions – 2006, Season 24 of Nature on PBS
      • Explores the decline of Africa’s lion populations
    • Eternal Enemies: lions and hyenas – 2005, National Geographic
      • Territorial conflicts between two top predators
      • Night footage
      • Mother lion encounters cobra
    • Lions of Darkness – 2008, National Geographic
      • Growing lion pride in Botswana searches for prey
    • True Life Adventures: the African lion – 1955, Walt Disney
      • Lions on the Serengeti plains
  • Films and movie trivia
    • “Leo the Lion”
      • Mascot for Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) studios
    • The Lion King – 1994, Disney
      • Animated coming-of-age story of lion cub, Simba
        • “Simba” is a Swahili word for lion
      • While making the film, Disney animators visited the San Diego Zoo Safari Park for inspiration (Scott 2016)
      • Earned $783.8 million at the box office (Jackson 2010)
    • The Ghost and the Darkness – 1996, Constellation and Douglas/Reuther
      • Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer set out to build a railway, but instead battle man-eating lions in this fictionalized account of the man-eating lions of Tsavo
      • This film’s predecessor was Bwana Devil (1952) (see below)
    • Born Free – 1966, Columbia Pictures (Jackson 2010)
      • Idyllic portrayal of the true story of George and Joy Adamson and their relationship with Elsa the Lion
      • Based on Joy Adamson’s best-selling book
        • Translated into 25 languages within months of publication
        • Some proceeds used to found a conservation trust, The Born Free Foundation
    • Clarence the Cross-eyed Lion – 1965, MGM
      • Quirky tale of how a veterinarian’s daughter adopts a visually-challenged lion
    • The Wizard of Oz – 1939, MGM
      • Based on the book by L. Frank Baum (1900)
      • Dorothy befriends Lion, as he searches the Land of Oz for some courage
        • Represents quintessential ‘Lion Coward’ motif (Jackson 2010)
          • Derived from centuries-old heraldic symbolism of a cowardly lion with its tail tucked between its legs
    • Bwana Devil – 1952, Miller (Turner Classic Movies)
      • True story of two man-eating lions that cause panic during the construction of an African railroad
        • Based on Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson’s book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907)
      • First movie to be filmed in color and 3-D
        • Sparked a 3-D movie craze in the 1950s
  • Performance
    • Leonardo da Vinci creates mechanical lions for various rulers (Jackson 2010)
      • 15th century
      • None of these inventions survive
    • Circus performers and “lion tamers” (Jackson 2010)
      • Carl Hagenbeck (d. 1913)
        • Introduced innovations to lion taming
          • Working with lions in wide arenas rather than small cages
          • Training without excessive force
        • Lions he trained did incredible acts
          • Rode horses and bicycles
          • Played on a seesaw
          • Allowed dogs to jump over them
        • Entertained at least a million people at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair
      • Other famous lion trainers
        • Issac Van Amburgh (d. 1865)
          • Queen Victoria loved his act; saw it 6 times in one month (in 1839)
          • One of the first performers to put his head inside a lion’s mouth
        • Claire Heliot (1866-1953) (born Clara Pleβke)
          • Physically strong
          • Journalists emphasized her feminine qualities
        • Mademoiselle Adgie
          • One of her male lions, Teddy, said to have killed her assistant and lover out of jealousy
        • Captain Bonavita (b. 1866-d. 1917) (born Jack Genter)
          • Famous for his “Old Armchair” routine
            • Lions sat in a pyramid, while he sat serenely in the center, reading a newspaper
          • Later in life, drew even larger crowds as a one-armed lion tamer
    • Broadway’s The Lion King
      • Play retells Disney’s popular animated film

 

Books

  • Research/memoirs/biographies
    • Lions in the Balance: Maneaters, Manes, and Men with Guns – Craig Packer, 2015
      • Renowned lion biologist Craig Packer shares his knowledge and hopes for the big cat’s conservation and management
    • A Lion Called Christian: The True Story of the Remarkable Bond Between Two Friends and a Lion – Rendall and Bourke, republished 2009
      • True story of how two Australian travelers purchase a lion cub from a British pet store, live in London as the cub grows, and steadfastly work to return Christian the Lion to the wild
      • Book made into two films
    • George Adamson: Lord of the Lions – Sandy Gall, 1991
      • Biography of George and Joy Adamson
    • The Marsh Lions: The Story of an African Pride – Jackman and Scott, 1983

 

  • Children's books (selected titles)
    • African Animals: Lions – Ipcizade, 2010
      • Discusses lion habitat, prey, and behavior
    • The Lion and the Mouse – Pinkney, 2009
    • Randy’s Dandy Lions – Bill Peet, 1964
      • “Five talented lions suffer from stage fright and are unable to perform their circus act. So a new lion-tamer is hired.” (Melvyl Libraries’ summary)
    • The Tawny, Scrawny Lion – Jackson and Tenggren, 1952
      • Lion meets Rabbit, who cooks delicious (vegetarian) carrot stew
      • Motifs: peace, Hare as trickster animal
  • Poetry

 

Art

  • Cave paintings in southwest France, Spain (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009), and Europe (Guggisberg 1963)
    • Ca. 30,000 years old
    • Likely hold ritualistic and mystic importance
    • Cave names: Chauvet, Labastide, Combarelle, Grotte des Trois-Frères, Lascaux, Fond-de-Gaume, Laugerie Basse, Pech-Merle, Isturitz
  • Lions well-represented in European and Asian art (Jackson 2010)
    • Scarce in African visual arts
      • Celebrated in African stories, proverbs, and dances
  • Drawings: natural histories
    • Conrad (Konrad) Gesner (b. 1516-d. 1565), Swiss naturalist
      • Naturalistic woodcut (1617) that “depicted [the lion] for its own sake” (Guggisberg 1963)
        • Significant departure from illustrations up to that time
          • De-stressed the ferocious aspects
        • Inspired natural history books
    • Capt. William Cornwallis Harris (b. 1807-d. 1848), British officer
  • Paintings (Guggisberg 1963, except where noted)
    • Peter Paul Reubens (b. 1577-d. 1640) (Jackson 2010)
      • Sketched lions in Brussels and Antwerp menageries
    • Josef Wolf (b. 1820– d. 1899)
      • Created naturalistic lion paintings for game hunters
    • Rosa Bonheur (b. 1822-d. 1899) (Jackson 2010)
      • Famous animal painter of her day
      • Bought her own pair of lions when she tired of making repeated trips to the zoo
    • Briton Rivière (b. 1840-d. 1920)
    • Richard Friese (b. 1854-d. 1918), German artist
      • Never visited Africa, but exhibited great intuition in depicting lions
      • One of Kuhnert’s teachers
    • Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert (b. 1865-d. 1925), German painter
    • John Guille Millais (b. 1865-d. 1931)
    • Arthur Radclyffe Dugmore (b. 1870-d. 1955), American naturalist and photographer
  • Sculpture and architecture
    • Sphinx has a lion’s body (Divyabhanusinh 2005)
      • Most famous one at Giza
    • Lions as guardians of gates, tombs, temples, shrines, palaces, public buildings, entrances (to cities, homes), etc. (Divyabhanusinh 2005; Jackson 2010)
    • Statuettes of lion-human figures
    • Seals and carved bowls depict scenes of lions attacking cattle, ca. 900-600 BC (Divyabhanusinh 2005)
    • Scenes depicting confrontations between Neo-Assyrian kings and lions (Divyabhanusinh 2005)
      • Considered part of a king’s duty to protect his people and their cattle
      • Kings also hunted for sport
    • India: lion pillar at Sarnath (Divyabhanusinh 2005; Jackson 2010)
  • Motifs on ancient coins, cups, cylinders, seals, and coats of arms (Guggisberg 1963; Divyabhanusinh 2005; Jackson 2010)
    • Gilgamesh fighting lions (originates from a 4,000 year old epic poem) 

Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae (Fischer de Waldheim 1817)

Subfamily: Pantherinae (Pocock 1917) - leopard, jaguar, lion, tiger, snow leopard

Genus: Panthera (Oken 1816)

Species: Panthera leo (Linnaeus 1758)

Subspecies: P. l. leo (Linnaeus 1758)

Subspecies: P. l. melanochaita (Hamilton Smith, 1842)

Sources: Bertola et al. (2016); Kitchener et al. (2017)

Early Illustration

From the late 1800s, a depiction of a female and male lion with their cubs.

"The Lion Cubs." Plate 54 in Robert Huish's 1829 book The Wonders of the Animal Kingdom: exhibiting delineations of the most distinguished wild animals, in the various menageries of this country.

Image credit: Made available by the © Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Maasai Headdress

Morani warrior wears a lion mane headdress during a Maasai ceremony.

Image credit: © Manon van der Lit via Flickr. All rights reserved. Used with permission from the artist.

Image info: Taken October 19, 2007.

5 Million Copies, 25 Languages

Joy Adamson's 1960 book, Born Free, not only inspired a popular film but also millions of people to care about lions.

Image credit: Pan Macmillan; from Biography.com.

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