Discover 4 Extinct Types of Lions

American Cave Lion
© Sergiodlarosa / CC BY-SA 3.0

Written by Taiwo Victor

Updated: October 9, 2023

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Key Points:
  • The Barbary Lion, Cape Lion, Eurasian Cave Lion, and American Cave Lion are all extinct lions.
  • Their species’ populations met their ends at different points in history, ranging from 12,000 years ago to as recently as 1922.
  • Despite the wide span of time between these lions’ demise, humans are thought to have contributed significantly to the extinction of each.

The majestic lion is a true symbol of power and strength. With its glorious mane, predatory prowl, and fearsome roar, it seems only fitting to discover that there is only one species of the lion: the Panthera leo.

There are, however, several subspecies, each with a distinct look and other identifying characteristics. The lion is undoubtedly at the top of the food chain. Within the ecology, it is a challenging foe to defeat thanks to its imposing size, power, and bite force.

Despite this, many are still in danger of extinction or have already completely vanished. So, what lion species have gone extinct?

The extinction of big cats, such as lions, is one of many devastating examples of the fragility of life on Earth. Despite being hailed as the kings of the jungle, the lions’ reign may be coming to an end if trends continue. Thirty thousand years ago, various species of lions hunted prey on four different continents.

Today, the number of lions fell by 42% between 1993 and 2014, and according to the most recent IUCN assessment, the adult population ranges from only 23,000 to 39,000.

In this article, you will discover the four extinct lion species and other interesting facts.

4 Extinct Types of Lions

1. Barbary Lion

Barbary or Atlas Lion

Barbary lions were closely related to lions from the western and northern parts of Central

Africa

.

©Dennis W Donohue/Shutterstock.com

The extinct Barbary lion population of the lion subspecies Panthera Leo was also known as the North African lion, Berber lion, Atlas lion, and Egyptian lion. It existed in the mountains and deserts of North Africa’s Barbary Coast, from Morocco to Egypt. The Barbary lion was previously considered a separate lion subspecies until 2017.

According to the results of morphological and genetic investigations of lion samples from North Africa, Barbary lions were closely related to lions from the western and northern parts of Central Africa. These analyses revealed that Barbary lions did not significantly differ from Asiatic lions. But according to DNA research, Barbary lions were no longer a distinct subspecies.

Since they were cold-weather animals, they acquired thick, dark, long manes draped over their shoulders. Barbary lions were known as “royal” lions since the royal families of Ethiopia and Morocco kept them; they might even have been the same lions that battled gladiators in ancient Rome. Due to overhunting, habitat destruction, and a fatal respiratory ailment, Barbary lions ceased to exist in the wild.

However, the possibility of restoring the Barbary lion has been discussed over the past few decades.

2. Cape Lion

Cape Lion

Little is known about the Cape lion, aside from the fact that they lived alone, unlike modern lion prides.

©public domain – Original / License

The Cape lion, which roamed South Africa’s plains, was considered a unique subspecies with a darker coat than other lion species. Although it became extinct in the wild in 1858, there might still be descendants in zoos around the world.

The Cape lion is no longer considered a distinct species. Little is known about this kind of lion, aside from the fact that they lived alone, unlike modern lion prides, and weighed between 200 and 300 kilograms (500 to 600 lbs), possibly the second largest and heaviest of the lion subspecies.

This lion stood out for its thick black mane covering its shoulders and underbelly and the gold fringe surrounding its face. It had enormous paws and black ears with black tips.

3. Eurasian Cave Lion

Cave Lion

A sculpture of the Eurasian cave lion, extinct for more than 12,000 years, is seen here in a park in Russia.

©Popova Valeriya/Shutterstock.com

From Europe to Asia, the Eurasian steppe was the hunting ground for the Eurasian cave lion. Around 12,000 years ago, the species went extinct, along with others like woolly rhinoceroses and mammoths. According to researchers who examined cave lion skeletons, they would have been heavier than the largest lions known today.

The Eurasian cave lion was one of the top predators in Pleistocene Eurasia, and it is arguably the most well-known extinct big cat after the saber-toothed tiger, if only because of its close relationship with the cave bear, which it frequently fed on.

Strangely enough, Eurasian cave lions raided European caves for bear-sized prey, and some individuals of this lion species were discovered there. Despite not living in dark caverns, this lion acquired its name from these discoveries.

4. American Cave Lion

American Cave Lion

The American cave lion was depicted in cave paintings as either lacking a mane or it being extremely uncommon.

©Sergiodlarosa / CC BY-SA 3.0 – Original / License

Modern-day North America and Mexico were home to the American cave lion. About 12,000 years ago, the species went extinct, about the same time the Eurasian cave lion did. The size of American cave lions was noteworthy; some estimations put their weight at up to 520 kilograms (1,153 pounds)! With that, it can be concluded that American cave lions are the largest lion species ever recorded

The American cave lion was depicted in cave paintings as lacking a mane or it being extremely uncommon, but it didn’t stop them from being the vicious kings they were born to be. The typical American cave lion was a big, muscular animal that moved quickly despite its size.

They could run 30 miles per hour thanks to their long, slender legs. These animals’ speed and size enabled them to capture huge prey such as steppe bison, camelids, enormous ground sloths, and even baby mammoths during the Ice Age.

What Are the Threats to Lions’ Survival?

With all these species mentioned, what are the possible causes of their extinction? Some of it can be linked to natural causes, such as illness. But humans are, by far, the biggest danger to lions. We have played various roles in the extinction of the species, whether directly or indirectly.

Barbary Lion

One of the rare photographs of a live Barbary Lion shows just how majestic this creature was.

©Alfred Edward Pease (29 June 1857 – 27 April 1939) / public domain – Original / License

Hunting and Poaching

Hunting and poaching are the biggest causes of the rise in endangered lion populations. The motivations behind such acts vary, ranging from the proactive protection of livestock to ceremonial killings, the illicit trafficking of lion bones, and trophy hunting.

Loss of Habitat and Human Conflict

Over the past century, two factors contributing to the 75% decline in lion habitat include agriculture and growing human settlement. Meanwhile, war-torn areas have made some lion habitats unsustainable.

Scarcity of Prey

The amount of available prey for lions has drastically decreased, whether due to climate change or the demands for the bushmeat trade. As their prey is taken away, lions kill humans more frequently, which leads to retaliatory attacks that result in the deaths of more lions.

Summary of 4 Extinct Types of Lions

Here’s a recap of the four extinct lion types that we took a close look at:

NumberLionExtinction Status
1Barbary LionExtinct due to overhunting, habitat destruction, and a fatal respiratory ailment
2Cape LionBecame extinct in the wild in 1858; it’s possible descendants are in zoos around the world
3Eurasian Cave LionExtinct for 12,000 years
4American Cave LionExtinct for 12,000 years

What Mammals Are in Danger of Extinction?

Bull elephant, loxodonta africana, in the grasslands of Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Front view.

Earth’s largest land mammal, the

elephant

, is in danger of extinction.

©Jane Rix/Shutterstock.com

As we’ve discovered, there are a number of lions that went extinct in the near or distant past. Unfortunately, there are more large animals under threat of extinction. Overall, the IUCN has listed 5,766 different animal species as endangered. The criteria for a species to be added to the endangered list are as follows:

  • Population reduction–A taxon’s population is reduced by 50-70% due to certain factors defined by the IUCN
  • Geographic Reduction–The specie’s extant area is reduced to between 5,000 and 500 square kilometers
  • Dangerously low number of adults–A taxon’s population only has 2,500 or fewer adults left
  • Expected rapid decline

Below is a list of three of the largest animal species today that are facing extinction:

1. African Savannah (Bush) Elephant/African Forest Elephant/Asian Elephant 

Elephants are the largest land mammals on Earth, and unfortunately, they are facing extinction. African forest elephant numbers have declined by over 86% in the past 31 years, while African savanna elephants have decreased by 60% over the last 50 years. Both cases have resulted from poaching and habitat loss. Meanwhile, Asian elephants are endangered due to habitat loss, fragmentation, and poaching. There are only an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 left in the wild. Currently, both African savannah and Asian elephants are listed as endangered, while African forest elephants are critically endangered. 

2. Bengal Tiger/Siberian Tiger/Sumatran Tiger/Indochinese Tiger/Malayan Tiger/South China Tiger

Tigers are the largest cat species on the planet, but all 6 extant species are either endangered or critically endangered. Three species have gone extinct in the last 100 years: the Javan tiger (1970s), Bali tiger (1930’s), and Caspian tiger (2003). Tigers have faced the largest threat due to habitat loss and poaching (for their exotic coats, and in some places, consumption and use of other body parts for rituals, jewelry, and more). 

3. Blue Whale

Blue whales are the largest animals on the earth, inhabiting the planet’s oceans. They were hunted in the past for their meat and blubber, to the point that their numbers dropped from an estimated 200,000 in the 1800s to 20,000 today. They are listed as endangered by the IUCN. Currently, their greatest threat is global warming. 


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About the Author

For six years, I have worked as a professional writer and editor for books, blogs, and websites, with a particular focus on animals, tech, and finance. When I'm not working, I enjoy playing video games with friends.

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