Monday, November 21, 2011

Barbary Lion

Wild Barbary Lion, photographed in 1893
Barbary Lions are members of a Lion subspecies that once lived throughout northern Africa. They are now considered to be extinct in the wild. There may be some captive specimens left, but there is some controversy as to whether many are true members of the subspecies.

The history of the Barbary Lion is a storied one. They were once fought off by the ancient Egyptians, and they were captured by the Romans for use in gladiatorial events. They also lived in the English Royal Menagerie (and later in the Tower of London) as far back as the 12th and 13th centuries. Morroccan Kings and Sultans  kept Barbary Lions, and there are some captive individuals today who are said to be descendants of the "Royal Lions."

Barbary Lions were huge. Adult males could weigh as much as 600lbs, making them the largest of the subspecies. They also had shaggy manes that extended well beyond their necks, reaching to their backs and even covering their undersides. They also had a grayer coloration to their manes than other Lions.

Possible Captive Barbary Lion
Interestingly, Barbary Lions have more in common genetically with Asiatic Lions than with other African Lions. This may be because of the large Saharan divide between the Barbary Lions and their southern relatives. Another theory is that the now completely extinct European Lion helped to bridge the gap between the cats living in North Africa and Asia.

Once upon a time it was believed that any long maned lion could be a descendant of the wild Barbary Lions. This has been proven untrue. Lion mane size is actually dependent on outsides factors, including temperature. After the last Barbary Lions were killed, various zoos and organizations claimed to have these lions in captivity, including Lions related to the Royal Lions in Morocco. Genetic testing on museum specimens (and on skulls from the Tower of London!) has helped to identify markers of the subspecies, but there is still a great deal to be known about their genetic distinctness. Until everything gets sorted out, efforts are being made to keep the remaining lions in their own selective breeding group.

IUCN Status : Extinct in the Wild since the 1920s
Location : North Africa
Size : Weight up to 600lbs (272 kg) in males, 400lbs (180kg) in females
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Carnivora
Family : Felidae -- Genus : Panthera -- Species : P. leo -- Subspecies : P. l. leo

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