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African and Asian Lions (Panthera leo) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

Body measurements

Attribute Males Females
Body weight 150-225 kg (331-496 lb)
average: 190 kg (419 lb)
[record: 272 kg (600 lb)]
122-192 kg (269-423 lb)
average: 126 kg (278 lb)
Head-body length 172-250 cm (5.6-8.2 ft) 158-192 cm (5.2-6.3 ft)
Shoulder height 123 cm (4 ft) 107 cm (3.5 ft)
Tail length 61-100 cm (2.0-3.3 ft)

Data source: Wilson and Mittermeier (2009), p. 137

General Appearance

Large cats (West and Packer 2013)

  • Largest carnivore in Africa
  • Second largest member of family Felidae
    • Tigers are larger
  • Muscular
  • Deep-chested

Powerful limbs (Werdelin 2013; West and Packer 2013)

  • Adapted more for attack than chase
  • Forelimbs
    • For locomotion and prey capture
    • Five toes on feet (like all cats)
      • First digit far back
  • Hindfeet
    • Four toes on feet (like all cats)
  • Large, padded feet
  • Claws
    • Sharp
    • Retractable
    • Protected in fleshy sheath

Head and facial features

  • Round face with prominent whiskers (West and Packer 2013)
  • Produce many facial expressions (Werdelin 2013)
  • Nose and nostrils
    • Black (Estes 2012), grey, or pink with black spotting
    • Increased spotting may occur with age
  • Whiskers
    • Specialized sensory hairs (Werdelin 2013)
      • Help felids hunt at night
      • Help compensate for reduced sense of smell
    • Long (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • White (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009); some black
    • Organized into 4-5 horizontal, parallel rows along muzzle (West and Packer 2013)
    • Visible by a 1-2 mm wide black spot at base of each whisker (West and Packer 2013)
      • Recognition of individuals based on spot patterns is possible (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
  • Lips
    • Black (Estes 2012)
  • Eyes
    • Iris brown amber to clear cream in color (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
      • Positioned laterally on head
      • Provides wide-angle vision
    • Round pupil (some cats have vertical, slit pupils) (Werdelin 2013)
  • Ears (West and Packer 2013)
    • Relatively small
    • Round
    • Black patch on back of ears
  • Skull and teeth
    • Skull (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; West and Packer 2013)
      • Large
      • Relatively flat on top
      • Features accommodate large facial muscles
        • Sagittal crest prominent
        • Zygomatic arches broad and robust
        • Mandible massive
      • Braincase small relative to size of skull
    • Teeth (West and Packer 2013)
      • Upper outer incisors rounded and recurved
      • Lower outer incisors not as large
      • Upper canines
        • Sharp
        • Approximately 50 mm (1.97 in) long
        • Only slightly longer than lower canines
      • First lower molar has sharp edge
        • Helps keep fourth upper premolar sharp
      • Also see Life Stages


  • Short hair on face, upper body, flanks, and tail (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
  • Longer hair on underparts
  • Coloration
    • Upperparts
      • Tawny, “sandy,” pale gold to amber (Schaller 1972; Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; West and Packer 2013)
    • Underparts
      • Pale or white inside limbs and on ventral surface (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; West and Packer 2013)
    • Unusual colorations observed (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
      • Dark (melanistic) form rare
      • Pale individuals known from Kaokoland, Namibia, and southwest Botswana
      • Nearly white individuals from northeast South Africa (McBride 1997)
        • Represents leucism (patchy, partial loss of pigment), not albinism (lack of color, from melanin, in skin, hair, or eyes)
    • Cub coloration
      • Spots (Schaller 1972; Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; West and Packer 2013)
        • Fade with age
        • Color change begins around 3 months
        • Some spots may persist to adulthood
  • Mane (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; West and Packer 2013, or as noted)
    • Present in males
    • Covers head, neck, chest, elbows, and sometimes belly
    • Up to 16 cm long
      • Some reports of up to 23 cm long (C. Packer & L. Herbst, unpublished data); corroboration recommended
    • Some adult males without mane
      • E.g., lions in Tsavo region and Tanzania
    • Color
      • Platinum to black
      • Variation within and among populations
      • May transition from sandy or tawny color to black with age (West et al. 2006; Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Also see Sexual Dimorphism and Life Stages

Tail (West and Packer 2013, and as noted)

  • Thick and muscular
  • Tapered
  • Just over half head-body length (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
  • Tuft of black hair at tip
    • Tuft covers horny spur at tip of tail (Rudnai 1973; Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
  • Anal glands present

Sexual Dimorphism

Unique male traits

  • Mane
    • Conveys information to other lions about a male’s age and testosterone/reproductive status (Schaller 1972; West et al. 2006)
      • Used to assess rivals
    • Most growth between 2 and 4 years of age (West and Packer 2013)
      • Growth dependent on androgens (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; West and Packer 2013)
    • Adaptive benefits
      • Used by females to recognize males at a distance (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
      • May indicate fitness (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
        • Used in female mate choice (Yamaguchi et al. 2004)
        • In contests between males, possible indicator of strength/fitness of opponent (Yamaguchi et al. 2004)
      • West et al. (2006) suggest mane is of minimal benefit against neck wounds during fights
        • Forehead and hindquarters usually the target of attack (not the neck)
  • May also have tufts of long hair on elbows and from chest to abdomen (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
  • Also see Pelage and Life Stages

Unique female traits

  • Two pairs of nipples (West and Packer 2013)
    • Very rarely three pairs

Pronounced size dimorphism

  • Adult males typically 30-50% larger than adult females (West and Packer 2013)

Sexual dimorphism in brain structure

  • Differences in sociality may correlate with differences in neural tissue (i.e., cognitive demands) (Arsznov and Sakai 2012)
    • Females: larger anterior cerebrum volume and surface area
      • Precise benefit unknown
        • May be attributed to unique social conditions experienced by females
        • Might be attributed to greater need to mediate social behaviors (i.e., greater need for inhibitory control)
          • E.g., during interactions with dominant, aggressive males
    • Males: may have larger brain regions implicated in visuospatial processing
      • Might reflect the male’s role in defending/patrolling a larger home range than females

Genetic Characteristics

  • Chromosome number
    • 19 pairs; 2n=38 (O’Brian and Johnson 2007; West and Packer 2013)
      • Only felid with a different number is the ocelot: 18 pairs, 2n=36
  • Hybridization in managed care (Wayne and Brown 2001)
    • Between “Asian” and “African” lions
    • Crosses with tigers, leopards, and jaguars

A Distinctive Face

The lion's round head, amber colored eyes, and short, tawny coat make it one of the most recognizable cats.

Note how the white whiskers grow in straight, parallel rows.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Small and Spotted

Lion cubs are born with spots, which they gradually lose into adulthood.

They share the tawny coat color of adults.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

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