A lion is usually called 'the King of the Beasts.' Its official scientific name is panthera leo. In the cat family, only the tiger is bigger. Today lions live mainly in Africa south of the Sahara Desert, although originally, they were found in Asia and Europe also. They like open savannas, woodlands, grasslands and thick bushes. In addition, a protected group of six hundred fifty lives in a sanctuary in India.
In general, a lion has a long body, short legs, and a large head. Males and females differ in appearance quite a bit. A male's most outstanding characteristic is his mane. It might be just a fringe around his head or very full covering his neck, shoulders and even chest. Some lions have a very dark almost black mane. This dark mane creates a very kingly appearance. A mane helps to make the lion more frightening to other animals.
A male lion is six to seven feet long, not counting its tail, and three to four feet tall. He can weigh from three hundred seventy to five hundred pounds. The female is called a lioness. She is about four to five feet long and about three feet tall. A lion's coat can vary in color. It can be yellow, light brown, gray or dark brown. The tip of its tail is usually darker than its coat.
The lion is the only cat which lives in a group. This group is called a pride. The pride divides into several smaller groups during the day to hunt or feed. Several generations of lionesses live in the pride along with a few lions and the cubs. The average number of lions in a pride is fifteen.
Each pride has a certain territory which it defends against other lions who want to push into their area. If prey is readily available, the territory may be twenty square miles. If not, the area might be much bigger. Sometimes females pass the same territory down to other females. They make known their territory by roaring and scent marking. Usually, roaring occurs in the evening before they go off to hunt and in the early morning.
Lions usually hunt and eat medium -to large- size animals with hooves, like zebras, antelopes, and wildebeests. They eat any meat available, though, even carrion. They steal meat from hyenas and wild dogs. In the open savanna areas, the lionesses do most of the hunting. Males of a pride in less open areas do their own hunting. Single lions do their own hunting too.
A pride of lions would seem to be a rather strong predator. However, the lions do not pay any attention to how the wind is blowing so that the prey does not get their scent. They also get tired easily and must give up a lengthy chase. That is why they hide and then burst out quickly at prey. The lion jumps on the prey's neck and strangles it. After a big kill, when their hunger is satisfied, the lions rest in the area for several days. An adult male may eat seventy pounds of meat at once and then rest for a week.
Usually a lioness in the wild breeds every two years. The gestation period is one hundred eight days. The average litter size is two to four cubs. The newborn cubs are blind and helpless but can follow their mother at three months. They are weaned from nursing by the age of six to seven months. They cannot survive on their own until two years of age.
Most lioness mothers do not pay close attention to their cubs and even leave them alone for many hours. Male cubs are driven out from the pride at three years of age and live alone until they can find another pride to take them in, usually at about five years of age. Many adult male lions wander alone for the rest of their lives.
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