|Only known photo of a live Cape lion, ca. 1860, Jardin des Plantes, Paris|
|Subspecies:||P. l. melanochaita|
|Panthera leo melanochaita
(Ch. H. Smith, 1842 1858)
Panthera leo capensis
Phylogeographic analysis showed that lion populations in Southern and Eastern parts of Africa are generally closely related. 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.
In 1842, a black-maned lion specimen from the Cape of Good Hope was described and named Felis (Leo) melanochaita. In the 19th century, naturalists and hunters recognised it as a distinct subspecies because of this dark mane colour. In the 20th century, some authors supported this view of the Cape lion being a distinct subspecies. Vratislav Mazák hypothesized that it evolved geographically isolated from other populations by the Great Escarpment.
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. Results of phylogeographic studies support this notion of lions in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa being genetically close. 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. 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. In 2017, lion populations in Southern and Eastern Africa were subsumed under P. l. melanochaita.
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. 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.
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. Lions approaching 272 kg (600 lb) were shot south of the Vaal River. 19th century authors claim that the Cape lion was bigger than the Asiatic lion.
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.
Distribution and habitat
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. Eventually, extant lions were relocated to Addo Elephant National Park.
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. 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. Spence died in 2010 and the zoo closed in 2012, with the lions expected to go to Drakenstein Lion Park.
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