How many types of lions exist today? It might surprise you to learn that it’s been the subject of significant debate in the scientific community. In the article below we’ll dig into this scientific debate, review both extinct and current lion species, and review their lower classifications. Let’s dig in!
The Great Lion Taxonomy Debate
When you think of great animal debates, you mind probably wanders to topics like “would a tiger or lion win in a fight” long before you think about about taxonomy debates.
Yet, with lions, there has been a great taxonomy debate that has actually changed the types of lions we recognize!
Scientists have long agreed there is a single species of lions in the world today. Its scientific name is Panthera leo.
However, until 2016, there were two different types (subspecies) of lions. One was the African lion (Panthera leo leo) and the other was the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica). The difference between the two was simple enough to describe, African lions lived in Africa while Asiatic lions live in Asia.
However, in 2017 the taxonomy of lions was changed in a fairly dramatic way.
Types of Lions Alive Today
In 2017 cat taxonomy task force changed the definition around the types of lions. No longer were lions simply African or Asiatic lions.
Instead, there are now two types of lions recognized today. The two subspecies are:
- Panthera leo leo: Includes lion populations in Asia and northern Africa countries.
- Panthera leo melanochaita: which lives across southern Africa.
The dividing line between the two types of lions is Ethiopia and South Sudan. In these areas the two types of lions will often mate and intermix, making distinctions between them difficult.
Past Types of Lions That are No Longer Recognized
In the past 200 years several types of lions were believed to be either unique species or subspecies. Here are some types of lions that are no longer classified.
- Cape Lion: The cape lion lived in the plains of South Africa and was believed to be a unique subspecies with a darker main than other types of lions. It went extinct in the wild in 1858, but there may be descendents in zoos across the world. Today, the Cape Lion is no longer recognized as a subspecies.
- Barbary Lion: Barbary lions lived in North Africa and were long considered a subspecies of lion. They’re also referred to as Nubian lions, atlas lions, and Berber lions. Barbary lions were actively hunted across their range and the last reported sighting was in 1956. DNA analysis has led to the conclusion Barbary lions were not a distinct subspecies.
- Asiatic Lion: The Asiatic lion was long recognized as a distinct subspecies. There’s a single remaining population of lions across the Asian continent that lives near Gir National Park in India. With how isolated these lions are, its easy to see why they’d initially be classified as a distinct type of lion. However, once again recent DNA has revealed these lions to be extremely similar to lions across north Africa.
Lion Species: Extinct and Alive Today
Up until 10,000 years ago, lions were believed to be the most widespread mammal outside of humans!
That’s because there were species of lions that lived in both North America and across Europe’s vast steppe that featured mammoths and other large mammals. Recently extinct lion species included:
- Cave lion (Panthera spelaea): The cave lion hunted from Europe across to Alaska on the Eurasian steppe. The species went extinct around 12,000 years ago when other species such as mammoths and Woolly rhinoceroses. Researchers that studied cave lion skeletons estimate they would have weighed up to 747 pounds, which makes them larger than the largest lion on record today.
- American lion (Panthera atrox): The American lion lived across modern day Mexico and the United States. The species went extinct at roughly the same time as the cave lion, about 12,000 years ago. American lions were notable for their size, estimates place their weight up to 930 pounds! That makes American lions the largest lion species on record.
As noted earlier, just a single lion species (Panthera leo) survives today. While lions are limited to small patches of savannas across Africa and a single national park in India today, tens of thousands of years ago they roamed the majority of land on Earth!
Lion Lower Classifications
Reading about lions you might see references to types of lions such as the transvaal lion, Congo lion, or West African lion. These are often called subspecies of lions.
From a classification standpoint, this is incorrect. References to these lions are what’s referred to as subpopulations or clades. Commonly cited subpopulations of lions include:
- Western Africa subpopulation (often called Western African lion)
- North African/Asian subpopulation (often called Barbary and Asiatic lions)
- Central African subpopulation (often called the Congo lion)
- Southwest Africa subpopulation (often called the Katanga lion)
- Eastern and Southern Africa subpopulation (often called Cape lion, Transvaal, and East African lions)
The correct lower classification for lions is Panthera leo leo for lions in West Africa, Central Africa, North Africa, and Asian subpopulations. The other type of lion isPanthera leo melanochaita , which is lions from Southwest Africa and Eastern and Southern Africa subpopulations.
The family lions belong to is Felidae, or cats. There are 41 species across this family that includes tigers, mountain lions, and bobcats. Lions belong to the subfamily Pantherinae which includes tigers, jaguars, leopards, clouded leopards, and snow leopards.
Lions belong to the genus Panthera. The genus includes tigers, leopards, jaguars, and snow leopards. Other large cats such as mountain lions and cheetahs are not part of Panthera, but rather belong to a different subfamily than lions.