Category Archives: P. leo leo

The solitary lion?


photo credit: image/713-Jbel_hebri_rocher

The lion is distinctive in being the only big cat which lives in extended social groups.

The North African ecosystem is
a relatively low energy system (click here) with little food available for carnivores when compared to African savannah or Indian dry forests. Lions
were known to move above the (temporary) snow line in the Atlas Mountains – an even more harsh environment.

This probably explains the reasons for most sightings of Barbary lions in the 18oos and19oos referring to either single animals, pairs, or pairs with cubs; the larger pride structures associated with East Africa are not encountered, and the type of female-dominated family groups which are commonly encountered in India are not described in documented North African sightings.

Some commentators suggest that the behaviour of the Barbary lion was more similar to the Siberian tiger – relatively solitary. There are certainly many examples of single animals being cornered and shot in isolation.

Reading links:

Black SA, Fellous A, Yamaguchi N, Roberts DL (2013) Examining the Extinction of the Barbary Lion and Its Implications for Felid Conservation. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60174. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060174

Black, S. (2015) Room to move in?

Spot the ‘wannabees’: are they Barbaries?

There are plenty of animals in zoos and private collections which the proprietors claim to be ‘barbary lions’. In the early 1970s during work at Rabat Zoo, Leyhausen and Hemmer set out a list of characteristics to sift out animals with possibly Barbary lion ancestry using the following criteria:

Male Indian Lion before and after!

A captive male Indian lion (P.l. persica) grows a luxuriant dark mane in Berlin zoo (top), whilst his wild counterpart has a much more modest offer (photos N Yamaguchi)

1. longer, shaggy fur
2. huge mane (head to belly)
3. mane darker to the rear
4. a greyish colour to coat
6. well-developed tail tuft

5. long hair ( & juvenile )
(neck/throat/front legs/belly)
7. high crown (so a straight line from nose to top of head)
8. rounded cheek and narrow muzzle
9. concave profile to front of skull
10.prominent anterior edge of the pelvis

11. pale yolk yellow iris  (not dark yellow or olive)
12. narrow post-orbital constriction of skull

Many observers distill this list down to the first three items – the shaggy fur, mane size and mane colour.

Unfortunately these three characteristics are affected by climatic considerations. If you put a lion in a colder climate it grows a shaggier mane. This means that shaggy lions in zoos in Europe and North America are no more likely to be of  Barbary ancestory than anywhere else.


Further Reading:

Patterson, B.D., Kays, R.W., Kasiki, S.M. and Sebestyen, V.M. (2006) Developmental effects of climate on the lion’s mane (Panther leo). Journal of Mammology, 82(2): 193-200

Yamaguchi, Nobuyuki; Cooper, Alan; Werdelin, Lars; MacDonald, David W. (2004). “Evolution of the mane and group-living in the lion (Panthera leo): a review”. Journal of Zoology 263 (4): 329.

A view through time: the Atlas mountain landscape

The evocative image by french watercolour artist Georges Frederic Rotig (1925) captures a pair of lions overlooking a small herd of prey, possibly barbary sheep, in a mountainous valley. Below is a blending of Rotig’s image with a view across a  valley in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It is interesting that this depiction of the lions the somewhat modest mane in the male . It is also notable that there is just a pair of animals in the hunt, reflecting stories of sightings of lions in North Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s involving small groups of animals rather than the prides familiar in sub-Saharan Africa.

Lions view the landscape


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.