Lion Face: 5 Facts & 5 Images

Written by Heather Ross
Updated: October 1, 2022
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Key Points:

  • Lions can open their jaws a foot wide, which creates a forceful and super strong bite.
  • Lions have the loudest roar of any other cat.
  • A sign of power, age and virility, a lion’s mane will attract a female mate.
  • Lion’s whiskers can be compared to human fingerprints in that each set is unique. Whiskers are attached to the nervous system and help lions navigate in the dark.

Big cats are some of the most effective, diverse, and widely dispersed predators throughout evolutionary history, so it makes sense that they’d be a popular subject in art and culture. But there’s something about the lion’s features that inspire human creativity even more than cats like the jaguar and tiger. Part of that has to do with the lion’s face. Its uniquely broad proportions and flowing mane have helped make the lion’s face synonymous with royalty, justice, and power — but that unique facial design was also nurtured by natural selection to hone the lion into the king of the savanna.

A lion’s face can tell us a lot about how these lethal predators operate. Here are five fascinating facts that will offer greater context for why a lion’s face is designed the way it is.

#1: They Have the Loudest Roars But Middling Bite Strength For Cats

Lions can open their mouths nearly a foot.

©iStock.com/3dan3

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Part of the reason that cat species are such effective predators comes down to the shape of their jaws. Like other big cats, lions can open their jaws exceedingly wide — up to roughly a foot — allowing them to put an incredible amount of force into their bite. Lions will incapacitate their prey by locking their jaws and teeth around their throat and either snapping their necks or suffocating them to death depending on the strength of the prey animal. With larger and more durable animals like wildebeest, this painful process may take as many as thirty minutes. With a standard PSI of 650, a lion’s bite force is significantly less than the spotted hyena — which is one of the lion’s most prominent competitors and possesses a bite force of 1,100 PSI — and the jaguar — which is recognized as the cat with the most powerful bite force at 1,500 PSI.

This partly comes down to size. As the second-largest cat in the world, the African lion can often take its time because of how effectively it can pin down its prey. These highly specialized jaws and gruesome teeth mean that lions can’t move their mouths side to side and grind pieces of food, so they instead use their sharp teeth to rip flesh into pieces and swallow it whole. That powerful jaw also helps project a powerful roar.

With a maximum volume of 114 decibels, they have the largest roar among any cat species and can project the noise to a distance of up to five miles. That’s thanks to their flat, square vocal cords. This roar likely developed as a result of the lion’s sociable tendencies. Roars can help pride members communicate with one another over long distances, but they can also be used as a form of intimidation between competing male rivals. Thanks to both their increased size and direct competition for breeding partners, male lions tend to have a more dramatic roar than lionesses.

#2: The Mane is an Indicator of Status and Virility

The mane of a lion often indicates power.

©iStock.com/Beshoy Arian

The magnificent and wild mane of the lion has often been attributed to virility, power, and the right to rule over others in human culture — but recent studies indicate that this is more true and more complicated than we ever realized. Charles Darwin once suggested that male lions developed their manes to protect their neck and the back of their head from attacks by rivals, but many researchers have long expressed skepticism over this premise given that feuding lions tend to attack from behind and that neck and head bites are rarely a source of major or fatal injuries resulting from territorial or mating disputes. Despite that, the mane serves an important role in determining which lions are most likely to pass on their genetic materials and which tend to win in territorial disputes. But exactly why that happens is an object lesson in how roundabout the process of natural selection can be.

That’s because longer and darker manes pose a liability to the survival of a lion. With no natural predators in the wild, the biggest threat to a lion is other members of its species and the dangers of their environment. Both a mane’s size and its dark coloring can make a lion more susceptible to overheating and exhaustion and lions that live in open and hotter environments like deserts tend to grow more meager manes than lions in environments like forests with more shade and moderate climates. Longer manes are also associated with abnormal sperm and lower feeding rates.

Since more magnificent manes offer distinct disadvantages while providing few if any practical benefits, reaching adulthood is a strong indicator of a lion’s innate survivability. But both the coloring and length of a mane are directly proportional to a male lion’s testosterone levels as well. Most male lions will begin to grow their mane at roughly a year old. Mane length typically correlates directly to a lion’s success rates fighting other male lions, while the darkness of the mane seems to have a direct influence on attracting mates and successfully breeding. That’s a critical advantage in a pride system where females usually have the leverage to choose their mates.

#3: Their Whisker Patterns Are Each Unique

The whisker patterns on a lion’s face are each unique.

©iStock.com/Pieter-Pieter

Functionally, a lion’s whiskers work in the same way that your pet cat‘s whiskers do. Though they use the same follicles as normal fur, these hairs are significantly tougher, longer, and thicker. Functionally, they work in much the same way as an insect‘s antennae. The follicles that contain whiskers connect directly to the nervous system, and that allows for the processing of sensitive and surprisingly insightful sensory information from vibrations in the air.

Though capable predators, cats generally don’t have the best eyesight at short distances. So when interacting with objects close to them, vibrations often play a larger role in helping them navigate with their other senses. As primarily nocturnal hunters, lions also depend significantly on their whiskers for tracking prey and navigating their environment in the dark.

Whiskers can also be used to identify a lion in the wild, at least as long as you can get close enough to a lion’s face to properly inspect it. While all lions have four or five rows of black dots that serve as whisker holes, not all of them have whiskers inside of them — and the order and number in which they appear isn’t consistent from one lion to another. A lion’s whisker pattern is as unique as a human being’s fingerprints, and conservationists are using these facts to help document the current struggle of this vulnerable and potentially endangered species.

Tracking movement patterns and even population numbers of wild lions is difficult, but conservationists in Kenya have begun a diligent campaign of photographing lion whisker patterns and then comparing those photographs using a simple grid system to identify the habits of specific lions and better track their movements and numbers.

#4: Their Noses Help Them Navigate Territory

Navigating territory is an important function of a lion’s nose.

©iStock.com/SKapl

The facts are that a lion shares more in common with the average house cat than just a set of whiskers on their face. They also share something known as the Jacobson’s organ. If you’ve ever seen your cat open its mouth into a sneer when prowling around the house, you’re seeing a reaction known as the flehman response. By stimulating this sense receptor, lions can derive a surprisingly nuanced amount of information from little more than a whiff.

While hunting, this enhanced sense of smell can be used to identify the presence of both predators and prey in an area along with roughly how long it’s been since they were in the area. It’s useful tactical information that can be used to evaluate the potential for prey in the area and help them head potential meals off at the pass. But it can also be used to dodge dangerous competitors like hyena packs and lead their pride to the kills of other predators.

Lions certainly aren’t above scavenging prey from other hunter predators — particularly smaller wild felines like cheetahs and leopards that can’t compete with the size of a lion or the numbers of an organized pride. As the only truly social cat breed, lions use smell to mark their territory and identify the territory of other individual lions and prides. Males will sometimes urinate to leave a message behind for potential competitors, but both males and females use more sensitive markers that can be picked up by their sensitive feline sense of smell.

Scent glands can be found all around the head and face of a lion and are even located between their toes. By digging or rubbing their faces against surfaces, they can leave behind the oily substance that these glands produce and effectively mark their territory. A male’s nose can even be used to detect when lionesses are in heat. ​They will smell the scent left behind by a female.

#5: They See Best at Night

The eyes are one of the most important parts of a lion’s face because lions are primarily nocturnal hunters.

©iStock.com/BreakingTheWalls

While lions don’t exclusively hunt at night, they’re primarily nocturnal hunters. This makes sense given how hot it can get on the African savannah and how heavy a male’s coat can be — but lions have also developed eyes that allow them to be better hunters at night. Thanks to their eyes having a smaller number of cones in them than humans, lions are only capable of seeing in colors that blend a combination of blue and green. But since they have a much higher ratio of rod cells, they have an incredible sense of night vision.

A lion’s night vision allows them to see between six and eight times better than humans in low light and darkness, and they’ve even developed white streaks under their eyes that reduce glare and a secondary set of eyelids that sweep away dust and other debris when it builds up on the surface of the eye.

Lions don’t necessarily have better night vision than the animals they hunt — as zebras, antelopes, and wildebeests have all developed rather effective methods of grazing at night. In an environment where dry heat can be the deadliest predator, the ability to operate nocturnally is often a practical necessity. Both females and males prefer to hunt at night, but it’s arguably an advantage that male lions need more than their female counterparts. Females tend to hunt cooperatively using methods of corralling herds and cornering the weakest members, while males are more likely to hunt solo and thus rely on ambushing prey from vegetation that offers a shorter line of sight. This cover tends to be far more advantageous at night than it is during the day.

Our research shows that five incredible facts about the lion’s face are as follows:

  • They have the loudest roars but middling bite strength for cats.
  • The mane in an indicator of status and virility.
  • Their whisker patterns are each unique.
  • Their noses help them naviagte territory.
  • They see best at night.

Up Next…

More lion facts for your perusal!

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Gunther Fraulob


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About the Author

Heather Ross is a secondary English teacher and mother of 2 humans, 2 tuxedo cats, and a golden doodle. In between taking the kids to soccer practice and grading papers, she enjoys reading and writing about all the animals!

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