Lion Taxonomy

Lion taxonomy is still not clear cut, it seems. At 2011, based on genetic analysis there are two subspecies of lion:

  1. African lion Panthera leo leo (Linnaeus, 1758)
  2. Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica (Meyer, 1826)

Taxonomy has developed significantly since the classification of the species first began. The classifications of Carolus Linnaeus have changed a lot since the mid-1700s.

The full lion classification at Dec. 2011 is as follows:

SpeciesPanthera leo
SubspeciesPanthera leo leo
SubspeciesPanthera leo persica

Note: the taxonomy of the cat family has evolved with much debate over the intervening years between the early classifications and today. Even today you will see web pages that refer to 39 species of wild cat. The premier book on the wildcats: Wild Cats Of The World (ISBN –13: 978-0-226-77999-7) by Mel and Fiona Sunquist list 36 species of wildcat.

In a book of the same title but different author, Wild Cats of the World (ISBN 0-7137-2306-8) by David Alderton, first published in 1993, David provides a checklist of wild cat species. He agrees that the taxonomy of the species and subspecies of the Felidae family is controversial. He lists no less than 13 subspecies of lion. He includes subspecies such as Panthera leo krugeri, found in the Transvaal region of south eastern Africa including the Kruger National Park.

The Wikipedia authors write about 12 subspecies. They say that “Today only eight subspecies are usually accepted..”. The authors also go on to say that the matter of classification is not resolved. They list the following eight subspecies:

  1. Panthera leo persica (P. l. persica)
  2. P. l. leo
  3. P. l. senegalensis
  4. P. l. azandica
  5. P. l. nubica
  6. P. l. bleyenberghi
  7. P. l. krugeri
  8. P. l. melanochaita

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ (Red List™) says that there are two subspecies. They are listed at the top of this page. Mel and Fiona Sunquist refer to two subspecies of lion as well. Who is correct? We have to go with the Red List™. They are charged with assessing the threats to survival of the species. Accordingly, there are currently two subspecies of lion under current lion taxonomy.

In general genetic analysis would appear to have reduced the number of species and subspecies. The Panthera lineage includes the jaguar, tiger, lion, leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopard. The four big cats, the first four wild cats mentioned, diverged from the ancestral line about 2-3 million years ago.

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