Why do lions have manes?

There are two reasons why lions have manes. The first is as a visual signal, even from a distance, that a male lion has status and is intimidating. The second reason is as a form of protection to the head and neck region during fights.

A 'WOW' lion mane. Photo in public domain or fair use.
A ‘WOW’ lion mane. Photo in public domain or fair use.

There is possibly a third reason which is worth mentioning. A darker mane appears to be more attractive to female lions. In this case the mane serves as a sexual signal of strength and desirability.

The distinctive lion mane can be yellow, brown or reddish brown and it darkens with age. As young males mature they grow a mane usually at around 3 1/2 years of age.

The growth rate varies with each individual. Some male lions have a short rough at the age of four years while others have a heavy mane at that age.

Lion Strut

The mane comes in all sizes but they generally increase in length and thickness as the animal becomes older. They make the adult male look impressive and…

“…serve as a conspicuous visual signal. In open habitat a mane can be seen at some distance. With his mane, combined with a stiff-legged, tail-up display posture that Jonathan kingdon calls the ‘lion strut’, a male lion presents an identifiable and intimidating figure even at a distance”.

The quote above is from East African Mammals: An atlas of evolution in Africa Vol. 3A, Carnivores. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

It appears that lions can distinguish male lions from the characteristics of their mane. Certainly, human biologists can do this.

Schaller G.B. in his 1972 study, The Serengeti Lion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) writes:

“The dense mat of hair absorbs blows and harmlessly tangles claws in a part of the body toward which most social contact is directed; bites to may leave an opponent with a mouthful of hair rather than skin”.



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Lion Facts

This article is split into two parts for technical reasons with a link at the base of the first part to the next. The contents’ links don’t work to the second part.

The most important lion facts, in my assessment, are listed here on a single page. The lion, as a subject, is very large. The work in writing this page involved reducing a myriad of facts into a relatively succinct and digestible bulleted list, supported by references throughout. It is also an umbrella page linking to other pages about the lion on this website (more links may be added later).

Overview on lion facts

The lion is in a group of two with the tiger. Who is the greatest fighter? The lion has been called “king of the beasts”. The top cat. But it is probable that the tiger trumps the lion. We have been in awe of both for tens of thousands of years. We admire the lion but sometimes treat it badly. The male lion’s mane is unique and the lion is the only cat to live in groups, the pride. The female lion is a cat that likes living in a community. And the male needs that community for survival although lone males form male coalitions. The members of a pride are related. New males joining a pride is a traumatic event because they chase and kill any cubs and subadults. This ensures that new offspring will be those of the new male. Lions are moderately successful hunters with a success rate of one in five (20%) but are very versatile in their choice of prey. They scavenge. Lions rest about 19 hours per day (80% of the day). They mainly hunt at night. The lions of the Ngorongoro Crater are inbred being contained within the walls of the crater.
Here are some lion facts:

  • Intro and appearance

  • Scientific name: Panthera leo. Member of the Felidae family. Leo is latin for lion.
  • One of the four big cats: tiger, Lion, jaguar and leopard.  The lion would lose in a lion vs tiger fight.tree climbing lions
  • The Wikipedia author says that eight subspecies are recognised yet the IUCN Red Lists names two: African lion (Panthera leo leo) and Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica). The Barbary lion is extinct.
  • There are man made hybrids of the lion: See Hybrid Cats (domestic and wild).
  • The earliest lions, as we know them, evolved about 600,000 years ago1. See History of the Big Cats for more.
  • One of the best known lion facts is that the lion has an unpatterned coat that is from light buff to yellow/red and dark brown in colour. The undersides are paler. Most wild cats have patterned tabby coats, some startlingly beautiful. Faded leopard spots can be found on young lions and some females, which indicate that the lion once lived in a more forested  habitat. The plain coat is because the lion lives on wide plains. The leopard lives in forest and it has spots. See Lion Pictures for more.
  • The famous lion mane comes in a range of sizes, lengths, densities and colours. Read why this is: Lion Mane.
  • The lion is the tallest (at the shoulder) of all the cats. One of the interesting lion facts.
  • Females look quite different to males, which is unique in the cat family2.
  • The lion’s shoulders and chest muscles are very strong, more so that its hind quarters3. These muscles are to capture and hold prey. A lion is built more for killing and capturing prey that running. However a lion can still reach impressive speeds of 50+ kph (32 mph -the speed of a fast domestic cat) for short distances (100 metres).
  • Males are about 123 cms at the shoulder (about 48 inches or 4 feet). Magic, the tallest pet cat stands 17.1 inches4. Smaller females are about 107 cms to the shoulder (about 42 inches or 3.5 feet).
  • Male lions weight between 145 – 225 kgs (320 – 496 lbs). Smaller females weigh between 83 – 168 kgs (182 – 370 lbs). Males are therefore about 50% heavier5.
  • The tail is about half the length of the body.
  • The lion’s skull is similar to that of the tiger. They both are very solid with very large zygomatic arches (cheek bones6) and a large saggital crest (ridge of bone running lengthwise along the mid-line of the top of the skull7). The teeth are about 6 centimeters long. Now some more lion facts….
  • Distribution

  • Today the distribution of the lion is very fragmented and there are two major places where it is found: sub-Saharan Africa and the Gir forest in north west India (the Asiatic lion). There are two pages on distribution and habitat: Lion Habitat (also looks at the reduction in habitat) and Lion Range. This is one of the sad lion facts.
  • General Behavior

  • Lions are at home in wide open places (compared to tree dwelling cats) and are mainly terrestrial (live on the ground) but can climb adequately but less well than tigers, for example (see Lion vs Tiger). Lions live in wooded grassland, short grass plains, dry forest and scrub, all of which provide good visibility.
  • Lions can dig for prey (aardvark)8
  • Lions are the least active wild cat9. One of the lion facts that we suspected.
Duration in day – Pride of Serengeti lions10 
Inactive19 hours
Travelling2 – 3 hours
Hunting & feeding1 hour


  • Lions are less able swimmers than tigers but still capable (cross a river).
  • Lions in common with other cats can ingest sufficient water from the body of prey for a period of time (7 – 9 days) to survive without drinking water11.
  • Prey

lion eating prey

  • Please see: What Do Lions Eat?
  • And: Lion Food Chain
  • And: Lion and Hyena
  • Lion Prey Profile at Kruger NP in a chart.
  • Lionesses do most of the hunting. Males join in once the prey is killed and take priority in consuming prey. Another one of the lion facts that we see on the TV!
  • Although availability of prey, presence of sport hunters and type of habitat (to name three factors) dictates when they hunt, they are mainly nocturnal.
  • Abundance of prey dictates the amount of time and the distance the lion travels when hunting. 
  • Lions stalk and ambush prey using different techniques dependant on prey type. This needs cover, which can be vegetation, riverbanks and gullies and a moonless night (where there is little other cover), as examples. The shorter the charge the more successful the hunt. The distance is critical. The charge can be short (a matter of several meters) and should be less than 30 metres (98 feet). The level of darkness also plays a role in success of the hunt. Moonless nights are more successful12. Storms and high winds13 are useful distractions to use as cover. Sometimes lions scavenge.
  • Lions eat any land mammal from 2 kgs (hare) to 1,000 kgs (baby elephant) and some aquatic animals. The main prey is ungulates (hoofed animals) representing 90% of kills eaten in the Serengeti.
  • Lions are opportunistic hunters seizing the chance of an easy kill (injured or sick animal).
  • Lions employ different hunting strategies….more lion facts:
General methods (3)(1) Single lion,  (2) group uncoordinated, (3) group coordinated. Single lions were successful 2.3% of time. Cooperative hunts were successful 27% of time14.
Single lioness – large preyhooks front claws into rump of prey – throws prey off balance
Group of lionsprey seized by muzzle, nape and throat
Coordinated huntsLions held same position in team for different hunts15. Lionesses on the wing of the team usually start the hunt. Wings encircle prey. Centers watched and waited for chance to surge.


  • Hunting success rates vary widely but are sometimes surprisingly low but generally more successful than other wild cats. Success depends on many factors (such as vegetation height, prey behavior, moonlight), one of which is the type of prey. Success rates for different prey are as follows in a study: Zebra 11%, wildebeest 30%, spring-hare 52%.  It would seem that success rates on average are around the 30% mark.
  • The kill rate for a single lion varies from about 11 per year to 47 per year16.
  • Lions subdue prey by (1) small prey: knock over and bite to neck or throat, (2) large prey: avoid horns by approach from rear, knock down and suffocation/strangulation by bite to throat (less used alternatives: nose or nape bite)17.
  • Small prey is carried to a more secure place and eaten. Large prey is eaten where it falls (in contrast tigers usually drag all prey off to a more secure place).
  • Lions eat fast to consume prey before it is “stolen”. A kill will often be eaten in one hour. A group can or might eat a zebra in 30 minutes18. Hiding prey is ineffective in the wide plains. Scavengers are highly active in the lions open habitat, which dictates method of eating prey.
  • At one siting lions might or can eat: (1) female: 25 kg in 5 hrs (2) male: 33 kg in a night19.
  • Social Organisation

lions on rocks wwarby

  • The social organisation of the lion is different (they are social) to that of the typical big cat. In the GIR Forest males and females lead separate lives except for mating and at large kills whereas typically big cats, males and females, meet each other on occasion as they travel throughout their ranges. In the Serengeti plains of Africa a pride of lions is made up of up to 18 females, cubs and up to 7 males. Females are related and do most of the hunting and killing.
  • Asiatic lion (Gir Forest) prides are made up of (1) between one and eleven (average 4 to 5) related lionesses (2) the offspring of these females and (3) subadult (young) male offspring. Adult males form a group or alliance (coalitions) of 2 – 6.
  • African lion (Serengeti) prides are made up of (1) a core of two to eighteen related females (2) their offspring and (3) one to seven sub-adult male20offpsring. The largest observed pride was 35 lions21.
  • The core unit of the pride can be forced to change under extreme conditions such as being hunted or through lack of prey in a home range22.
  • As can be expected, the pride is not necessarily a fixed, totally unified, never to change, unit. Some lions are not communally minded and sometimes sub-prides can form23.
  • Female Asiatic lions prefer “riverine forest” habitats while males prefer dry open hilltops24.
  • Asiatic lion: Home ranges (the area that the lion considers its “home”): Females: 50 km2: Males 100 – 140 km2. Ranges and pride are dictated by the availability of prey at the worst times. Less prey = larger ranges. Less prey = smaller prides. Large ranges can overlap.
  • The lives of male lions is very different to that of females. While generations of lionesses and their pride might occupy the same home range, males are more nomadic. Young but adult male lions leave or are forced out of the pride (by a new group of males). If they are related they stick together. If it is a sole male who leaves he will join a coalition. When these nomadic males are sexually mature they try and take charge of a pride of lionesses and in turn force out more male lions completing the cycle. Male lions who take over prides kill young cubs (to induce females to come into estrus and mate with them) so the females on the pride resist takeovers (battle of the sexes). The average “tenure” of a pride by a male lion in Etosha National Park, Africa was 3.2 years25.
  • Male lions in a pride patrol the pride’s range. Lions also scent mark territory by spraying and and also mark territory by scrapings on the ground, sometimes at prominent and well used landmarks in-line with all cats.
  • roaring lion
  • The lion can roar, only the big cats can do this (lion, tiger, jaguar and leopard). Lions have more than 10 other vocalisations including: growl, meow, grunt and a puff (used in close situations). Can lions purr like out moggies? Yes, but it is not an inhale/exhale purr but one way, while exhaling26
  • The lion’s roar appears to be multifunctional: territorial marker, to facilitate contact, for group cohesion, to allow lions to keep sufficient space between themselves. Both males and female roar. Lions can roar in synchronisation. Humans can hear a roar from about 5 miles; for lions the distance is probably further. See tiger roar for the mechanics. Lions roar most often at dawn, dusk and at midnight27. The lion roar is on of the lion facts that is not yet completely understood.
  • Lions tend to live in higher overall densities (number of lions per km2) than many other wild cats28
  • Update: Lions live socially and employ the tail up position when greeting. In domestic cats this signals a need for friendly relations and it is described as affiliative behavior. See The social function of tail up in domestic cats.
  • Reproduction & Development

lion cubs by ucumari

  • As males and females live in a pride there is no need for the female to call and attract the male. The lion is there and he can tell if the female is in heat (in estrous) by her smell and her willingness to mate. Males rarely fight over females except when there is uncertainty as to “ownership” of the lioness29. Where a related group of male lions take over a pride there is a greater chance that the genes of the coalition are propagated as the group ensures the success of the mating lion(s)30.
  • I describe the lions mating procedure here: Lions Mating. One of the lion facts that mimics the domestic cat.
  • Incoming males kill the females’ young. A female will come into estrus very quickly thereafter and can conceive 2 weeks after the death of her young. The male therefore increases his chances of having his own offspring31. Although infanticide makes sense to an incoming male lion for us it seems one of the more gruesome lion facts.
  • There seems to be an optimum number of female lions in a pride in respect of reproductive success; the number being 3-10 adults32.
  • Sometimes lionesses defend their young to the death.
  • Cubs lose the spots that they have when they reach adulthood. It is said that the spots help survival by providing camouflage41.
Female lions have their first litterAt 3 -4 years of age.
Gestation (pregnancy)102 – 115 days – females of the pride start estrous at similar times.
Litter sizeHard to assess in the wild – Serengeti plains 1.7 – 1.9, woodlands 2.3, other areas 2.3 – 3.3 cubs33 
Kept in birth den6 – 8 weeks – understandably cubs are extremely vulnerable. Solitary females rarely manage to raise young34.
Female rejoins pridecubs are one month to 6 weeks old. Cubs might suckle from a female other than its mother.
Cubs weanedAbout  2 months of age.
Mother takes cubs to killsEarliest 6 weeks of age.
StarvationThis was the major cause of death for cubs in the age range 6 – 12 months of age. Almost 30% starve to death35.
SurvivalCub survival on the plains is worse than for woodlands
Cubs join in hunt11 months of age. Capture prey at 15 – 16 months.
Cub dependent on mother for foodUp until 16 months of age.
Cubs leave pride’s (natal) range48 months of age at latest usually. Sometimes dispersal may take place as early as 16 months however.
Female lifespanPossibly 18 years or more.
Male lifespanA male was aged 16 in Kruger National Park36. Normally a max.of 10 years in the wild37.


  • Threats and Conservation

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