Cape lion

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Cape lion
Cape Lion.jpg
Only known photo of a live Cape lion, ca. 1860, Jardin des Plantes, Paris
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. melanochaita
Trinomial name
Panthera leo melanochaita
(Ch. H. Smith, 1842[1] 1858[2])

Panthera leo capensis

The Cape lion (Panthera leo melanochaita) was a subpopulation of the Southern African lion[3] in South Africa's Cape region, which is locally extinct since the mid-19th century.[1][4]

Phylogeographic analysis showed that lion populations in Southern and Eastern parts of Africa are generally closely related.[5][6] In 2017, the Cat Classification Taskforce of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group subsumed the lion populations in Southern Africa under the trinomen Panthera leo melanochaita.[7]


In 1842, a black-maned lion specimen from the Cape of Good Hope was described and named Felis (Leo) melanochaita.[4] In the 19th century, naturalists and hunters recognised it as a distinct subspecies because of this dark mane colour.[1] In the 20th century, some authors supported this view of the Cape lion being a distinct subspecies.[8][9] Vratislav Mazák hypothesized that it evolved geographically isolated from other populations by the Great Escarpment.[1]

This theory was questioned in the early 21st century. Genetic exchanges between lion populations in the Cape, Kalahari and Transvaal regions, and farther east are considered having been possible through a corridor between the escarpment and the Indian ocean.[5] Results of phylogeographic studies support this notion of lions in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa being genetically close.[10][11] Based on the analysis of samples from 357 lions from 10 countries, it is thought that lions migrated from Southern to Eastern Africa during the Pleistocene and Holocene.[10] Analysis of 194 lion samples from 22 different countries suggest that populations in Southern and Eastern Africa are distinct from populations in West and North Africa and Asia.[11] In 2017, lion populations in Southern and Eastern Africa were subsumed under P. l. melanochaita.[7]


Engraving published in Brehms Tierleben, 1927
Drawing by Rembrandt, ca. 1650, in the Louvre, Paris

The type specimen of the Cape lion was described as very large with black-edged ears and a black mane extending beyond the shoulders and under the belly.[4] Skulls of two lion specimen in the British Natural History Museum from the Orange River basin were described as a little shorter in the occipital regions than other lions in South Africa and with a tendency to develop the second lower premolar.[1]

American zoologist Edmund Heller described the Cape lion's skull as longer than those of equatorial lions, by at least 1.0 in (25 mm) on average, despite being comparatively narrow. He considered the Cape lion to have been 'distinctly' bigger than other African lions.[12] Lions approaching 272 kg (600 lb) were shot south of the Vaal River.[13] 19th century authors claim that the Cape lion was bigger than the Asiatic lion.[14]

Results of a long-term study indicate that the colour of lion manes is influenced by climatic variables and varies between individuals. Manes are darker and longer in cool seasons.[15]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

A 1739 advert by Charles Benjamin Incledon featuring feliforms: the Mesopotamian lion from the vicinity of Bassorah, Cape lion, tiger from the East Indies, panther from Buenos Aires, Hyaena hyaena from West Africa, and leopard from Turkey, besides a "Man tyger" from Africa

The lion population in what used to be the Natal and Cape Provinces of South Africa had been locally extinct since the 1850s to late 1860s. The last lions south of the Orange River were sighted between 1850 and 1858.[1] Eventually, extant lions were relocated to Addo Elephant National Park.[16]

In captivity[edit]

In 2000, specimens asserted to be descendants of the Cape lion were found in captivity in Russia, and two of them were brought to South Africa. South African zoo director John Spence reportedly was long fascinated by stories of these grand lions scaling the walls of Jan van Riebeeck's castle in the 17th century. He studied van Riebeeck's journals to discern Cape lions' features, which include a long black mane, black in their ears, and larger size. He believed some Cape lions might have been taken to Europe and interbred with other lions. His 30-year search led to his discovery of black-maned lions closely resembling Cape lions at the Novosibirsk Zoo in Siberia, in 2000.[17][18] Besides having a black mane, the specimen that attracted Spence had a "wide face and sturdy legs." Novosibirsk Zoo's population, which had 40 cubs over a 30-year period, continues, and Spence, aided by a zoo in Vienna, was allowed to bring two cubs back to Tygerberg Zoo. Back in South Africa, Spence explained that he hoped to breed lions that at least looked like Cape lions, and also hoped to have DNA testing done to establish whether the cubs were descendants.[19] Spence died in 2010 and the zoo closed in 2012, with the lions expected to go to Drakenstein Lion Park.[20]

Preserved specimens[edit]

Aside from the British Natural History Museum in London, specimens were preserved in the museums of Paris, Stuttgart, Leyden and Wiesbaden.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Mazak, V. (1975). "Notes on the Black-maned Lion of the Cape, Panthera leo melanochaita (Ch. H. Smith, 1842) and a Revised List of the Preserved Specimens". Verhandelingen Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (64): 1–44. 
  2. ^ Wozencraft, W.C. (2005). "Order Carnivora". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 546. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494. 
  3. ^ Bauer, H.; Packer, C.; Funston, P.F.; Henschel, P. & Nowell, K. (2015). "Panthera leo". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-1. International Union for Conservation of Nature. 
  4. ^ a b c Smith, C.H. (1842). "Black maned lion Leo melanochaita". In Jardine, W. The Naturalist's Library. Vol. 15 Mammalia. London: Chatto and Windus. p. Plate X, 177. 
  5. ^ a b Yamaguchi, N. (2000). The Barbary lion and the Cape lion: their phylogenetic places and conservation. African Lion Working Group News 1: 9–11.
  6. ^ Barnett, R.; Yamaguchi, N.; Barnes, I.; Cooper, A. (2006). "Lost populations and preserving genetic diversity in the lion Panthera leo: Implications for its ex situ conservation" (PDF). Conservation Genetics. 7 (4): 507–514. doi:10.1007/s10592-005-9062-0. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-08-24. 
  7. ^ a b Kitchener, A.C.; Breitenmoser-Würsten, C.; Eizirik, E.; Gentry, A.; Werdelin, L.; Wilting, A. & Yamaguchi, N. (2017). "A revised taxonomy of the Felidae: The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group" (PDF). Cat News. Special Issue 11. 
  8. ^ Lundholm, B. (1952). "A skull of a Cape lioness (Felis leo melanochaita H. Smith". Annals of the Transvaal Museum (32): 21–24. 
  9. ^ Stevenson-Hamilton, J. (1954). "Specimen of the extinct Cape lion". African Wildlife (8): 187–189. 
  10. ^ a b Antunes, A.; Troyer, J. L.; Roelke, M. E.; Pecon-Slattery, J.; Packer, C.; Winterbach, C.; Winterbach, H.; Johnson, W. E. (2008). "The Evolutionary Dynamics of the Lion Panthera leo Revealed by Host and Viral Population Genomics". PLoS Genetics. 4 (11): e1000251. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000251. PMC 2572142Freely accessible. PMID 18989457. 
  11. ^ a b Bertola, L. D.; Van Hooft, W. F.; Vrieling, K.; Uit De Weerd, D. R.; York, D. S.; Bauer, H.; Prins, H. H. T.; Funston, P. J.; Udo De Haes, H. A.; Leirs, H.; Van Haeringen, W. A.; Sogbohossou, E.; Tumenta, P. N.; De Iongh, H. H. (2011). "Genetic diversity, evolutionary history and implications for conservation of the lion (Panthera leo) in West and Central Africa". Journal of Biogeography. 38 (7): 1356–1367. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2699.2011.02500.x. 
  12. ^ Heller, E. (1913). New races of carnivores and baboons from equatorial Africa and Abyssinia Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 61(19): 1–12.
  13. ^ Pease, A. E. (1913). The Book of the Lion John Murray, London.
  14. ^ Lieber, F.; Wigglesworth, E.; Bradford, T. G., eds. (1857). "Lion (felis leo)". Encyclopædia Americana. A popular dictionary. Volume VIII (New ed.). Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea. p. 5−7. 
  15. ^ West P.M.; Packer C. (2002). "Sexual Selection, Temperature, and the Lion's Mane". Science. 297 (5585): 1339–1343. doi:10.1126/science.1073257. PMID 12193785. 
  16. ^ "Addo Elephant National Park". South African National Parks. Retrieved 2009-04-24. 
  17. ^ "'Extinct' lions (Cape lion) surface in Siberia". The BBC. 2000. Retrieved 2012-12-31. 
  18. ^ "Лев". Archived from the original on March 29, 2009. Retrieved January 28, 2010. 
  19. ^ "South Africa: Lion Cubs Thought to Be Cape Lions". AP Archive, The Associated Press. 2000.  (with 2-minute video of cubs at zoo with John Spence, 3 sound-bites, and 15 photos)
  20. ^ Davis, R. (2012). "We lost a zoo: Western Cape's only zoo closes". Daily Maverick. Retrieved 2015-03-30. 
  21. ^ Maberly, Charles Thomas Astley (1967). The game animals of Southern Africa. Cornell University: Nelson. p. 148. 

External links[edit]