10 Cool Facts About Lions

Since time immemorial, lions have been associated with courage, power, and royalty. Primitive man doubtless treated these beasts with both fear and reverence. The lion’s recognizable profile, sheer strength, and association with nobility all make him the King of Beasts in the eyes of many people. How much of that reputation is myth, and how much is fact? Let’s find out – here are ten things you might not have known about the King!

10. Lions Don’t Live in Jungles

If you grew up in the 90’s, you may have grown up with two conflicting ideas. For the longest time, the lion was known as the “King of the Jungle.” If you’ve ever seen The Lion King, however, you know exactly how easy this myth is to bust. 

Lions are kings of the savannah. They prefer flatter grasslands over any type of forest. Lions have excellent eyesight and poor camouflage compared to other cats; a sandy, relatively unmarked coat like a lion’s blends more with the dry grass of the plains than jungle foliage.

We don’t know exactly how the “king of the jungle” idea got started. It was probably from the days when Europeans thought of Africa as nothing but jungle. Another theory holds that the Hindi word “jangala,” where we get the word “jungle” from, denotes any place uninhabited by humans; since Indian lions once lived in such places, some wires may have gotten crossed. The original Tarzan series further popularized the idea of lions in the jungles of Africa. Hopefully things have gotten cleared up!

9. A Lion Roars Louder Than a Lawnmower

Aside from their regal appearance, lions are most known for roaring. The imposing males roar to let other animals know that this is their land. They have the loudest roar of any big cat – 114 decibels, or 25 times as loud as a gas-powered lawnmower. It can be heard up to 5 miles (8 kilometers) away.

How do they do it? It’s all physiology. Unlike our vocal chords, which are triangular, a big cat’s are squared and full of fat. This allows them to produce more sound with less effort. Their vocal cords are also a lot stronger than ours in general.

8. Nobody Knows What the Tuft is For…

…or why there’s a bone in there. The entire purpose of the lion’s tail tuft is a mystery. They are the only felines to have tufted tails, and, for reasons unknown, there is a sharp spike of fused vertebrae hidden beneath all that fur.

The ancient Greeks and Persians might have noticed it as well. There exists a man-lion-scorpion hybrid called a manticore. The beast had a mouth loaded with sharklike teeth, was capable of swallowing people whole, and launched quills from its scorpion-like tail. Luckily, these are mythical, and the manticore was likely a misinterpretation of a tiger. It’s still an uncanny coincidence.

7. Lions Are the Only Social Cats

If you have a house cat, you’ve probably noticed that they are far from the playful, obedient animals that we expect dogs to be. Humans don’t feel like they’re the masters around cats. That’s because the common house cat has a very different social structure when compared to dogs or humans. It’s harder to crack their code.

Aside from house cats, lions are considered the only social felines. They are the only cats that coordinate attacks and hunt in groups. It’s almost always the females doing the hunting – the lion king is back there protecting the hunting range from other lions. They are still territorial, but the duties of hunting, raising young, and guarding the territory are split among the 15-20 members of the pride. That’s counting a dozen or so lionesses, their cubs, and 1-3 males.

6. The Ladies Do the Work

Even though the lion is the king of beasts, he usually doesn’t do that much hunting. The lion’s mane impedes his camouflage so much that he would barely be able to get a kill in, so it’s usually a couple of lionesses who bring home the bacon. Other lionesses stay behind to make sure nothing happens to the cubs. They take turns with these duties, so every lioness is really a supermom.

The lion king isn’t necessarily lazy, though. He’s making sure that the hunting ground stays with him and his pride. While the lionesses are away, he’s roaring, letting other males know who’s boss. He will also chase off hyenas, or anyone else who might want a free dinner. 

5. Prides Keep It In the Family

Much like wolf packs, hunting in lions is a family affair. Usually, the male of the pride is the only one in it; any male cubs that reach the age of two get kicked out of the group. After that, they might hang out with their rejected cousins and start looking for territories of their own. It’s estimated that only 1 out of every 8 lions will get a mane, let alone a pride. 

Let’s say one of these stray males gets lucky: one of his prospective territories is headed by an older, but weaker lion. (If he’s in a group with his cousins, they may gang up, then divide the spoils.) The first thing a lion will do after winning his pride is kill any cubs that the old ruler had. This puts those lionesses back into the mating mood, allowing the fitter lion to pass on his star qualities. That’s the Circle of Life. 

4. There’s More to Lions Than Africa

When it comes to lions, Africa has the most. However, there was a time when lions were much more widespread. Some 10,000 years ago, in a time known as the Pleistocene era, there were cave lions (Panthera leo spelaea) in America, ranging from Canada into Peru. Other subspecies (or species – the jury is still out) of cave lions lived in Alaska and Russia. Cave lions even ranged into places like Germany and France – definitely not places we think of as having lions today.

Due to a number of factors, with the biggest probably being human hunting, there is only one subspecies of lion that is not currently found in Africa: the Indian or Persian lion (Panthera leo persica). This variety of lion once ranged into Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but is currently restricted to Gir National Park in India. Both British colonists and Indian rulers shot lions; the invention of the gun almost killed the subspecies. Ironically, the preserve that contains the only living Indian lions originated as a ruler’s hunting ground.

Even African lions aren’t entirely safe. Rural population expansion has led to more wire-traps. The locals are likely to kill a lion if its search for territory happens to take it through their backyard. If it came down to a saving human life or saving a vulnerable species, the vast majority of us would choose the human life. What would you do if you saw a lion on your lawn?

3. Lions Will Switch Prey – Sometimes to Humans!

There’s a rule of thumb when it comes to supposed man-eating animals: they’re misunderstood, and 7 times out of ten, they’d take a gazelle or deer over a human. Lions usually fall into this same bucket. If a hunter and a lion meet, it’s usually the human who’s throwing the first stone – or spear. There are, however, exceptions.

Unlike the exaggerated tales of child-eating wolves or man-eating snakes, there is a well-documented case of lions eating people on a preserve near the Tsavo River in Kenya. The “Man-Eaters of Tsavo” were two maneless lions who terrorized a railroad operation in 1898. The area already had a bad reputation for harboring the deadly Tsetse fly, and it’s likely that the short-maned males had a taste for human flesh thanks to the abundance of corpses. There had also been a disease that dramatically cut the herds of wildebeest and zebra, further prodding the lions to seek other food.

The number of victims varies from a legendary 135 to a more realistic 30. Their rampage was stopped by John Henry Patterson. The stuffed Tsavo lions (pictured above) can be seen on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, USA, and the events have been dramatized in The Ghost and the Darkness. 

The Tsavo lions were bad boys who broke all the rules: short manes, men doing the hunting, and something had pushed them to walk where other lions wouldn’t have tread. A weak, old, or otherwise disadvantaged lion could well change his diet to human flesh. Rare as it is, it’s not unheard of; in 2004, another older male went on a similar killing spree in Tanzania.

2. In China, Lions are Magical Beasts.

Google the Chinese word for “lion.” While you’re looking at the results, you might have noticed some Chinese statues and dancing outfits that look strikingly like dogs to Westerners. Outside of the internet, you might have seen stone beasts like the one above around and wondered exactly what you were looking at. 

The stone lions found outside many Japanese and Chinese establishments are China’s 206 BCE perception of what they thought a lion was. At that point, China’s only encounters with lions were by word of mouth and the occasional pelt from India. This led them to create their own “lion,” in Chinese “shīzi,” based on minced information. Korea and Japan (including Okinawa) all have their own takes on the idea as well. The lions in lion dancing are slightly different from the stone lions, but retain the name.

Because of its association with India and Buddhism, the lion was thought to be a protector of the religion. As opposed to the harem nature of real lion prides, the male and female are usually presented in a pair; the male has a sphere representing the Earth (or possibly qi), and the female has a cub beneath her paw. Try to pick them out!

Although the Chinese and other Asians do not see the guardians beasts as dogs at all, there are several Chinese breeds of dog that have been bred to look like lions. These include the Shih Tzu, Pekingese, and Chow Chow. It’s not reasonable for most of us to keep a real lion as a pet. A Shih Tzu is much more manageable.

1. Lion vs Tiger – Who is Really King? 

Here’s something to settle a few bar bets that readers might have going: who wins when you put a lion and a tiger in a cage match? Let’s look at the contenders and figure this out.

As stated in the previous point, China does not have lions. When the time came to appoint the ruler of the animals, the Chinese picked the tiger – a top predator that just so happened to have the Chinese character for “king” stamped on its forehead. Convenience aside, it’s a good choice: tigers are the biggest of the big cats, weighing up to 800 pounds. That’s all muscle, and puts a lion’s 550 pounds into perspective.

Now, note that I said “in a cage match,” earlier. That would automatically favor the tiger winning based on historical evidence. The Romans loved exciting fights, and pitting lions against tigers always drew a crowd. (Proof positive that history repeats itself: death battles of this sort are still popular on YouTube.) India did similar. Both nations had feline cage matches that, in the end, favored the tiger.

In the arena, the tiger did not mess around. Many lions died by the tiger going straight for the throat. If that failed, the tiger’s overwhelming strength and cunning often sealed the match. In a one-on-one match, the tiger wins 90% of the time.

In the wild, things may be different. A tiger could be outnumbered by a lion and his harem. The females hunt, but the males have fought other lions, giving them cat-to-cat battle experience. Furthermore, a lion’s mane can theoretically prevent bites to the neck. Even though history favors the tiger in this death battle, it’s a good matchup…with a few catches.

Currently, India is the only place where lions and tigers coexist in the wild. Between real-life lion VS tiger bouts and potential ligers – massive lion-tiger hybrids – the landscape of big cats in India may undergo a few changes. What was once a cage match may become a very real conservation battle. Who’s your money on?

Conclusion:

Cultures around the world admire the lion for his roar, apex predator status, and regal figure. Like human families, lion prides work together to keep the population steady. Most lion subspecies are vulnerable, with the Indian subspecies being endangered. As humans wander into lion country, and lion and tiger encounters increase in frequency, the lion king’s reign is no longer certain.

What do you think? Is the lion still king in your eyes, or has the tiger taken his throne? Are lions regal animals whose mere roar sends lesser creatures running, or is that maned beast an incestuous man-eater? Let us know below!

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Aquila Wilks
Aquila Wilks is a part-time employee at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. Although her specialty is venomous snakes, she likes most animals - especially the weird ones!