Big shaggy beast & other myths

Contemporary descriptions of the fabled Barbary Lion tend to emphasise the size, hairiness and ferocity of the sub-species. It would seem that these views are a mix of ancient historical accounts (for example use of the lions in the Roman Coliseum Games), descriptions of the animals as ‘large maned’ and perhaps some exaggerated hunting records.

Scientific accounts give a more sober view. Both Guggisberg (1963) and Hemmer (1978) describe the animal as a medium sized lion. However it did perhaps have a thickset build, emphasised  by a relatively short leg length and deep body when compared with lions on the African savannah. These features may have been an adaptation to a mountainous habitat, with a different mix of prey species and are reflected in some of the artistic images of the animal.

Arab Courier taxidermyOne of the most striking depictions is the Arab Courier taxidermy by Jules Verreaux, arguably the most spectacular (and at one time controversial) taxidermy ever created and which is now housed in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg. This diorama includes two mounted lions thought to be of North African origin (but not yet genetically tested), collected as wild shot individuals in the mid 1800s, certainly no later than its creation in 1867 for the Paris Exposition. Interestingly the attack on the camel is by a pair – male and female, suggesting, if collected together, they were both sexually mature adults (however dozens of barbary lions were shot by French colonial hunters in Algeria around this period, so we cannot be sure that they are a true pair).

The ferocity of the attack is evident in the diorama, but interestingly, both animals are of relatively modest size. The medium sized animals described by science, perhaps?


Further Reading:

Guggisberg C.A.W. (1963) Simba: the life of the lion. London: Bailey Bros. and Swinfen

Hemmer H. (1978) Grundlagen und derzeitiger Stand des Zuchtprogrammes zur Rückerhaltung des Berberlöwen (Panthera leo leo). In: Seifurt S, Müller P, editors. Congress Report, 1st International Symposium on the Management and Breeding of the Tiger, 11th and 12th October 1978 in Leipzig, Abb. 1. Zoological Garden. Leipzig: International Tiger Studbook. 65–72.

Yamaguchi N, Haddane B. (2002) The North African Barbary lion and the Atlas Lion Project. International Zoo News 49 (321): 465-481.