Barbary lion

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Barbary lion
Barbary lion.jpg
A male photographed in Algeria by Alfred Edward Pease in 1893[3]
Annual report - New York Zoological Society (1903) (18427026972).jpg
Lioness and cubs, New York Zoo, 1903
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Feliformia
Family: Felidae
Subfamily: Pantherinae
Genus: Panthera
Species: P. leo
Subspecies: P. l. leo[1][2]
Trinomial name
Panthera leo leo[1][2]
(Linnaeus, 1758)
  • P. l. africana (Brehm, 1829)

The Barbary lion was a Panthera leo leo population in North Africa that is regionally extinct today.[4] This population occurred from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to Egypt and had declined since the mid-19th century, following the diffusion of firearms and bounties for shooting lions.[3] The last recorded shooting of a wild Barbary lion took place in 1942 near Tizi n'Tichka in Morocco. Small groups of lions may have survived in Algeria until the early 1960s, and in Morocco until the mid-1960s.[5]

Until 2017, the Barbary lion was considered a distinct lion subspecies.[6][2][1] Results of morphological and genetic analyses of lion samples from North Africa showed that the Barbary lion does not differ significantly from lion samples collected in West and northern parts of Central Africa.[7] It falls into the same phylogeographic group as the Asiatic lion.[8]

The Barbary lion was also called 'North African lion',[3] 'Berber lion', 'Egyptian lion',[9] and 'Atlas lion'.[10]

Taxonomic history[edit]

Map shows range of P. l. leo and P. l. melanochaita[8]

A lion from Constantine, Algeria was the type specimen for the specific name Felis leo used by Linnaeus in 1758.[11] Following Linnaeus's description, several lion specimens from North Africa were described and proposed as subspecies in the 19th century:

In the 20th century, there has been much debate and controversy among zoologists on lion classification and validity of proposed subspecies:

In 2017, the Cat Classification Task Force of the Cat Specialist Group subsumed the lion populations in North, West and Central Africa and Asia to P. l. leo.[1]

Genetic research[edit]

The lions kept in the menagerie at the Tower of London in the Middle Ages were Barbary lions, as shown by DNA testing on two well-preserved skulls excavated at the Tower in 1936-1937. The skulls were radiocarbon-dated to 1280-1385 CE and 1420-1480 CE. The growth of civilizations along the Nile and in the Sinai Peninsula by the beginning of the second millennium BC stopped genetic flow by isolating lion populations. Desertification also prevented the Barbary lions from mixing with lions located further south in the continent.[20]

In 2006, mtDNA research revealed that a lion kept in the German Zoo Neuwied originated from the collection of the King of Morocco and is very likely a descendant of a Barbary lion.[10] Five lion samples from the collection of the King of Morocco were genetically analyzed and found not to be maternally Barbary lions. Nonetheless, genes of the Barbary lion are likely to be present in common European zoo lions, since this was one of the most frequently introduced subspecies. Many lions in European and American zoos, which are managed without subspecies classification, are most likely descendants of Barbary lions.[21]

Results of a phylogeographic analysis using samples from African and Asiatic lions was published in 2006. One of the African samples was a vertebra from the National Museum of Natural History (France) that originated in the Nubian part of Sudan. In terms of mitochondrial DNA, it grouped with lion skull samples from the Central African Republic, Ethiopia and the northern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[22]

While the historical Barbary lion was morphologically distinct, its genetic uniqueness remains questionable. Still unresolved is the taxonomic status of surviving lions frequently considered as Barbary lions, including those that originated from the collection of the King of Morocco.[23]

In a comprehensive study about the evolution of lions, 357 samples of wild and captive lions from African countries and India were examined. Results indicate that four captive lions from Morocco did not exhibit any unique genetic characteristics, but shared mitochondrial haplotypes H5 and H6 with lions from Western and Central Africa. They were all part of a major mtDNA grouping that also included Asiatic samples. Results provide evidence for the hypothesis that this group called 'lineage III' developed in East Africa, and about 118,000 years ago traveled north and west in the first wave of lion expansions. It broke up into haplotypes H5 and H6 within Africa, and then into H7 and H8 in Western Asia. African lions probably constitute a single population that interbred during several waves of migration since the Late Pleistocene.[7]


Sultan the Barbary lion, New York Zoological Gardens, 1897
Lioness and cubs in the New York Zoo, 1903

Barbary lions were described as having greyish tawny coloured fur. Males had very dark and long-haired manes that extended over the shoulder and under the belly. Their elbow tufts were large and the brown tail tuft long. The mane hair was 8 to 22 cm (3.1 to 8.7 in) long. Head-to-tail length of stuffed males in zoological collections varies from 2.35 to 2.8 m (7 ft 9 in to 9 ft 2 in), and females measure around 2.5 m (8 ft 2 in). Skull size varied from 30.85 to 37.23 cm (12.15 to 14.66 in).[17][24][25]

It was often held that the Barbary lion was larger than other lions.[26] According to Pease, Barbary lions were not large, but shorter at the shoulder than lions from other parts of Africa. Some attained exceptional weights as they preyed heavily on livestock. Pease also noted that black leopards in North Africa were "nearly as large" as lions.[3]

In some historic accounts, the weight of wild males was indicated as being very heavy, and reaching 270 to 300 kg (600 to 660 lb). Yet, the accuracy of the measurements is questionable, and the sample size of captive Barbary lions was too small to effectively conclude that it was the largest lion.[27]


Before it became possible to investigate the genetic diversity of lion populations, the colour and size of lions' manes was thought to be a sufficiently distinct morphological characteristic to accord a subspecific status to populations.[28] Mane development varies with age and between individuals from different regions. It is therefore not a sufficient characteristic for subspecific identification.[29] Sub-Saharan African lions kept in cool environments of European and North American zoos usually develop longer manes than wild lions. Barbary lions may have developed long-haired manes, because of temperatures in the Atlas Mountains that are much lower than in other African regions, particularly in winter.[27] Therefore, the size of manes is not regarded as an appropriate evidence for identifying Barbary lions' ancestry. Instead, results of mitochondrial DNA research published in 2006 support the genetic distinctness of Barbary lions in a unique haplotype found in museum specimens that is thought to be of Barbary lion descent. The presence of this haplotype is considered a reliable molecular marker for the identification of Barbary lions surviving in captivity.[22] Results of a long-term study of East African lions in Serengeti National Park indicate that various factors, such as ambient temperature, nutrition and the level of testosterone, influence the colour and size of lion manes.[30]

Former distribution and habitat[edit]

The last photograph of a wild lion in the Atlas Mountains, taken by Marcelin Flandrin on a flight from Casablanca to Dakar in 1925

Historical records indicate that until the 19th century the Barbary lion inhabited the range countries of the Atlas Mountains from Morocco to Tunisia and into Lybia. In Algeria, Barbary lions lived in the forest-clad hills and mountains between Ouarsenis in the west, the Pic de Taza in the east, and the plains of the Chelif River in the north. There were also many lions in the forests and wooded hills of the Constantine Province and south into the Aurès Mountains.[3] Jardine remarked in 1834 that at the time lions may have already been eliminated along the coast and near human settlements.[31] By the mid-19th century, lion numbers were greatly diminished. The cedar forests of Chelia and neighbouring mountains harboured lions until about 1884.[3] The last survivors in Tunisia were extirpated by 1890.[32]

In the 1970s, Barbary lions were assumed to have been extirpated by the early 20th century.[17] A comprehensive review of hunting and sighting records revealed that a lion was shot in the Moroccan part of the Atlas Mountains in 1942. In Morocco and Algeria, lions were sighted into the 1950s, and small remnant populations may have survived in remote montane areas into the early 1960s.[5]

Behaviour and ecology[edit]

Pease accounted in 1913 that in areas where lions were not very numerous, they were more frequently found in pairs or family parties comprising a lion, lioness and one or two cubs. Several times he came across two old lions and a lioness living and hunting together.[3] Between 1839 and 1942, sightings of wild lions involved solitary animals, pairs and family units. Analysis of these historical records suggests that lions retained living in prides even when under increasing persecution during the last decades, especially in the eastern Maghreb. The size of prides was likely similar to prides living in sub-Saharan habitats, whereas the density of the Barbary lion population is considered to have been lower than in moister habitats.[5]

When Barbary stags and gazelles became scarce in the Atlas Mountains, lions preyed on herds of livestock that were rather carefully tended.[33] They also preyed on wild boar and red deer.[34]

Sympatric predators in this area included the Barbary leopard and brown bear.[6][35]

In captivity[edit]

This male in Plzeň Zoo is allegedly a Barbary lion
A male lion with a lioness at Rabat Zoo, Morocco

Historically, lions were offered in lieu of taxes and as gifts to royal families of Morocco and Ethiopia. The rulers of Morocco kept these 'royal lions' through war and insurrection, splitting the collection between zoos when the royal family went briefly into exile. After a respiratory disease nearly wiped out the royal lions in the late 1960s, the current ruler established enclosures in Temara near Rabat, Morocco, to house the lions and improve their quality of life. There are currently a small number of 'royal lions' that have the pedigree and physical characteristics to be considered as mostly pure Barbary descendants. Some were returned to the palace when the exiled ruler returned to the throne.[27]

In the 19th century and the early 20th century, lions were often kept in hotels and circus menageries. The lions in the Tower of London were transferred to more humane conditions at the London Zoo in 1835 on the orders of the Duke of Wellington. One famous Barbary lion named "Sultan" was kept in the London Zoo in 1896.[36]

At the beginning of the 21st century, the Addis Ababa Zoo kept 16 adult lions. With their dark, brown manes extending through the front legs, they looked like Barbary or Cape lions. Their ancestors were caught in southwestern Ethiopia as part of a zoological collection for Emperor Haile Selassie I.[37] In March 2010, two lion cubs were moved to The Texas Zoo in Victoria, Texas, where efforts were made to preserve the species under the WildLink International conservation programme. Whether the cubs are of Barbary lion descent is not yet determined.[38] In 2011, the Port Lympne Animal Park in Kent received a Barbary lioness as a mate for the resident male.[39] As of June 2016, Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue in Rock Springs, Wisconsin, has two female lions born in 2001 that have been shown by DNA testing to be Atlas lions. The Living Treasures Wild Animal Park in New Castle, Pennsylvania, claims to keep a pair of Barbary lions in the park's collection.[40] The Zoo des Sables d'Olonne, Vendee, France, also claims to have a male and female Atlas lion.[41]

In the past, a number of researchers and zoos have supported the development of a studbook of lions directly descended from the King of Morocco's collection.[23] The lions of Rabat Zoo are deemed to have the original Barbary lion's characteristics.[42]

Cultural significance[edit]

During the Roman Empire, lions were used in Gladiatorial games.[6][34]

Omar Mukhtar, the Libyan revolutionary was called the Asad aṣ-Ṣaḥrā’ (Arabic: أَسَـد الـصَّـحْـرَاء‎, "Lion of the Desert").[43] The Morocco national football team is nicknamed "Atlas Lions."[44][45]


See also[edit]


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External links[edit]