35 Fascinating Facts About Lions
This “king of the beasts” is one of the most well-known wild animals in the world. Found mostly in parts of Africa south of the Sahara Desert, lions are a sight to behold, even though most people have never seen one in its natural habitat.
Whether or not you get a chance to see one in the wild, there's a lot you can learn from this majestic creature. Just check out these fascinating lion facts to see for yourself.
Lions Are Social Creatures
Lions are one of few big cats that live in a group, also known as a pride. They usually consist of two to three males and up to 10 females who live together with their young, although there have been as many as 40 in one group.
In some rarer subspecies, they divide themselves by gender until mating time.
The Lion Is Endangered
Over the last century, the lion population has declined by a whopping 90 percent. While they are native to Africa, they are extinct in 26 countries across the continent. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species lists them as vulnerable.
However, in some parts of Africa, they are classified as “critically endangered” because their populations are declining rapidly due to the illegal wildlife trade, poachers and trophy hunting.
Lions Are Very Loud
Of all the big cats in the world, the lion has the loudest roar. It can reach 114 decibels — about as loud as a leaf blower.
Some lion vocalizations can be heard up to 5 miles away.
The Lion’s ‘King of the Jungle’ Nickname Is Not Accurate
While the lion is known as “the king of the jungle,” lions don’t actually live in jungle or forest areas. They live in grassland, savanna, dense scrub and open woodland.
They like to be able to see the landscape around them to locate and stalk prey. A dense forest or jungle does not allow for this view.
Lions Are Big Sleepers
While there are some animals that need very little sleep, lions need a lot. In fact, they sleep up to 21 hours a day.
As predators, they are not constantly worried about their safety. They do not have sweat glands, so they reserve their energy in high heat for the hunt at night.
Their Dark Mane Gives Their Attributes Away
Male lions begin to get their manes at about two years. As they age, their manes get darker. A full, black mane indicates a powerful lion. The older they get, the darker it gets, and the thicker it is, the more well-fed and healthy the lion is.
Conversely, it will lighten on a sickly lion. It is, therefore, no coincidence that females prefer darker manes.
They Only Live in Africa. Or Do They?
Believe it or not, lions are not only found on the African continent. There is a small population of lions in Gir National Park in India, the only other area where lions live on the planet.
Due to its breeding program, the Asiatic lion population has gone up from 177 in 1968 to 674 in 2020.
Lionesses Are Communal Mothers
In a pride, many of the females give birth at the same time. With cubs of a similar age, lionesses communally care for each other's young, which includes nursing them.
They do this for about two years and force all the males and some of the females out, at which point they usually find another pride. If they don’t, they don’t live very long.
Lions Don’t Really Have a Discerning Palate
As carnivores, lions will eat many species, including rodents, baboons, buffalo, hippos, wildebeests, zebras and antelopes. They also eat fresh kills and carrion scavenged from other animals like hyenas, cheetahs and wild dogs.
Lionesses do most of the hunting, and the males are fed from their kills.
Lions Can Eat 25% of Their Body Weight in 1 Meal
Lions, as you might guess, are big eaters.
In fact, they can eat up to 90 pounds (or a quarter of their body weight) in one sitting.
There Are More Than 1 Type of Lion
While there is only one species of lion (Panthera leo) there are seven subspecies. They are: the Katanga lion (Southwest African lion), Congo Lion (Northeast Congo lion), Transvaal Lion (Southeastern lion), Barbary lion, Nubian Lion (East African lion), Asiatic lion and the West African lion.
All are in danger of extinction.
They Don’t Need to Drink Every Day
Lions will drink daily if water is available. If it isn’t, they can go without it for days or even weeks.
They get the moisture they need from the fluids of their prey. They can also conserve hydration by resting during the daytime.
They Once Lived in Europe and the Americas
Lions weren’t always only on the African continent. The Eurasian cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea) lived around Europe and Asia 370,000 years ago, while the American lion (Panthera leo atrox) lived from the Yukon to Peru 340,000 years ago.
Both were larger than the modern lion, and both went extinct around 11,000 years ago.
Lions Cubs Have Spots
When they’re cubs, lions have spots. They are born with a greyish, woolly coat, and their spots act as camouflage, allowing them to blend into bushes and long grasses.
When they are about 3 months old, the spots begin to fade, but some do keep them, even into maturity.
They Are the Second Largest of the Big Cats
There is only one big cat whose size dwarfs the lion’s. That’s the tiger, which can reach almost 13 feet in length and weigh up to 700 pounds.
Lions are considerably smaller, between 6.5 and 11 feet in length and weigh up to 500 pounds.
White Lions Are Rare, but They Do Exist
In South Africa, Timbavati Game Reserve’s white lions are believed to have been in the area for centuries, but they are so rare, the earliest recorded sighting was fairly recent — in 1938.
These white lions aren’t albino — the color of their fur is caused by leucism, a recessive trait. They were thought to be extinct until 2004, but they continue to hunt and breed successfully in the wild.
They Are the Only Big Cats With Tasseled Tails
A lion’s tail helps it balance, while its dark tip is used like a beacon to lead other lions through tall grasses. Females may raise their tail to show cubs where to follow.
Their tales also allow them to communicate the location of their prey while hunting.
Lions Are Fast Runners, but Not for Long
With a top speed of about 50 miles per hour, the lion is the fastest of all the big cats. However, it can only manage these speeds in small bursts.
Because of this, they need to stay close to their prey and work together to ensure hunting success. They can also leap up to 36 feet.
Many Lions Don’t Survive After Leaving the Pride
Just one in eight male lions survive into adulthood. When they begin to reach maturity, they are kicked out of the pride, while the females usually stay behind. They roam by themselves or with other “orphans,” and at this point, they are extremely vulnerable.
They may take over a new pride but will have to fight other males to the death to do that.
Lions Have Keen Eyesight
At night, lions can see six times better than humans due to the coating behind their eyes that helps capture and reflect moonlight.
The white fur under their eyes helps make the reflection even brighter, which allows them to spot and stalk prey much easier.
Lions Can (and Do) Attack Humans
Humans are not off limits to lions when it comes to prey. Conservation scientist Luke Dollar says they are not to be underestimated in this regard: “Almost any organism around lions might be a potential prey item, and for people to think that they are an exception is folly.”
Tanzania alone has seen 593 deaths and 308 injuries from lions between 1990 and 2004.
Lions Don’t Live Very Long
Surprisingly, lions live about as long as or a little less than the average housecat. Lionesses can live to about 16 years old, but males only live up to 10 years.
In captivity, however, they can live 25 years or even longer, due to being consistently well fed and living in a different pride structure that separates young lions from older individuals.
A Hollywood Actress Once Lived With a Lion
In the 1960s and 70s, actress Melanie Griffith had a pet lion named Noel. Her mom, Tippi Hedren and step-father Noel Marshall, were animal activists who wanted to make a film to raise awareness about the endangered status of lions. Melanie was even allowed to sleep next to the beast.
A trainer taught the family how to act around the lion, which meant not making any spontaneous movements or turning their backs.
The MGM Lion Has Opened Its Movies for Decades
The famous MGM lion was a real animal. Dubbed “Leo the Lion,” this movie mascot has opened every MGM film since 1929. Eight lions were used to create this iconic, roaring logo (the first lion, named Slats, did not roar.)
The last of the eight, actually named Leo, has been used in some form since 1957. In 2021, Leo appears as a CGI lion that is based on real footage of him from the 1950s.
A Lion’s Claws Protract
A lion's claws aren’t permanently extended. In fact, they are retracted within the paw when the animal is relaxed. Elastic ligaments and tendons create sheaths to hold and protect them from the wear and tear that comes from walking.
When a lion is ready to hunt, it straightens its claws like blades from their sheaths.
It’s Unclear If the Romans Really Fed Christians to the Lions
There’s no proof that Christians were singled out as food for lions. However, Romans were known to feed people in general to the big cats, so chances are some Christians met their end in that way.
There is record of Romans sentencing prisoners to ad bestias or execution by beasts, which also included dogs, bears and boars.
Lions Cannot Move Their Eyes
You’ll probably never see a lion's eyes dart from side to side. While their pupils are three times bigger than those of a human, they cannot see well peripherally.
When they want to look at something, they have to turn their whole head to see it.
One Lion Remembered His Caregivers Years After His Return to the Wild
In 1969, Ace Bourke and John Rendall bought a lion cub named Christian from a London department store. It lived with them until it grew too big and was returned to the wild in Kenya.
Years later, when they went to find Christian in his new home, he not only remembered them, he greeted them by jumping into their arms. On at least one visit, he even introduced them to his pride. The video of their reunion was one of the first videos to go viral on YouTube and has been watched more than 13 million times.
A Lion Named Cecil Put Trophy Hunters in the Spotlight
In 2015, a lion known as Cecil was living in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park and was well known for being fearless and allowing tourists an up close and personal view of his life in the wild. He was also tagged with a GPS tracking device as part of Oxford University study.
You would think this made him safe from trophy hunters, but it did not — he was lured away from his home and killed by an American dentist named Walter Palmer. His death went viral and put the focus on the decimation of the lion population by sport hunters. Of the 62 lions tagged in the study, 24 have been killed in this way.
Some Female Lions Have Manes
In Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve, there are lionesses with thick manes and deep, bellowing roars that visitors easily mistake for males. This is due to high levels of testosterone, according to conservationist Luke Hunter, who said that they are likely infertile as a result.
Despite this, they live long, healthy lives, and because they are thought to be males, they may be an asset in protecting their pride.
A Lion’s Tongue Can Lick the Flesh from Skin
Everyone knows what a domestic cat's tongue feels like — it’s a little rough, like sandpaper. Imagine that on a much larger scale!
A lion’s tongue is covered with papillae, sharp spines that can lick the flesh from any animal. It also tenderizes meat with its saliva to jump start the digestion process before the lion even begins eating.
Mountain Lions Are Not Lions
Mountain lions are the largest of the small cats and, as such, have more in common with domestic felines than they do with lions. Spanish explorers to the New World called this wildcat a “leon” (lion) and “gato monte” (cat of the mountain), hence the name.
There were lions in the Americas at one time, but they went extinct thousands of years ago.
A Lion’s Whiskers Are Like a Fingerprint
The pattern of a lion’s whiskers is unique to the animal — no two are the same. Conservationists in Kenya are now using this identifying marker to keep an eye on them by building a database of their movements.
With only about 2,000 left in the country, scientists hope to have a greater understanding of their day-to-day lives and how to keep their numbers from dwindling any further.
Lions Can Travel Many Miles for Food
Prides usually have a well-defined territory with a core location that they defend against other lions; beyond it, they tolerate some overlap. If there’s enough food in the area, their territory may be small — about 8 square miles. If there isn’t, it may be up to 150 square miles.
Prides can pass territories from older females to females and stay in the same area over decades.
The Liger Does Not Exist in the Wild
A liger, a cross between a female tiger and a male lion, does not happen naturally. They only exist in captivity, as their habitats of these species do not overlap.
About 30 exist in the U.S. today and were thought to be sterile, but some have produced offspring.