lion, large carnivore of the cat family, Panthera leo, found in open country in Africa, with a few surviving in India. Lions have short-haired coats of tawny brown, with the tail ending in a dark tuft. Most males have black or tawny manes of varying length growing from the head, neck, and shoulders. The mane may be quite long and magnificent, giving the lion the imposing appearance that has led it to be known as king of the beasts in folklore; studies indicate that long manes are typical mainly of cooler climate lions. Grown males are about 9 ft (2.7 m) long including the 3-ft (90-cm) tail, stand about 3 ft (90 cm) at the shoulder, and weigh up to 400 lb (180 kg). Females are smaller and lack manes. The lion is anatomically very similar to the tiger although it is different in habitat and way of life.
Lions are the only cats that are social rather than solitary. They usually live in groups called prides, which vary in composition but may occasionally include as many as 30 individuals. The lionesses do a considerable part of the hunting. There is no definite breeding season. They inhabit grasslands, scrubland, and semidesert areas, where they hunt antelope, zebra, and other large herbivorous animals, as well as domestic stock. Lions also eat carrion. They do not normally attack humans unless wounded or provoked; under unusual conditions they may prey on humans, but even old and sick animals are more likely to subsist on rodents, insects, and other small prey.
In early historic times lions ranged over Eurasia from E Europe to India and over all of Africa. They were eliminated from Europe and the Middle East by the beginning of the 2d cent. A.D. and from most of the rest of their range in recent times. They are now numerous only in central Africa, although even there they are severely reduced in numbers. At the beginning of the 20th cent. a few pairs remained in India and were preserved as tourist attractions in the Gir forest (now Gir National Park) of Gujarat state in W India. This group had increased to 290 individuals in 1955 but, although still protected, has been somewhat smaller since; they are the only remaining Asiatic lions. In early Christian symbolism the lion represented Jesus and has also represented St. Mark. For the constellation and sign of the zodiac see Leo.
Lions are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Felidae.
See the many books by J. Adamson; G. B. Schaller, The Serengeti Lion (1972); A. E. Pease, The Book of the Lion (1986).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.