The mane of the lion is one of the indisputable dogmas with which we grow and, together with a giraffe and an elephant, a male lion with its mane is one of the first animals we learn to recognize as young children. Further, as we grow Panthera leo, it is one of the first creatures of which we understand sexual dimorphism when we learn that the lionesses do not have hair!
Well, my lion world has been shattered from now as the above is no longer true, well, at least it is not always true!
On 22 April 2016 I saw a photo posted on Instagram by @INSTA_BOTSWANA of two male lions mating. Although surprised, I am aware of the existence of homosexual behaviour in some animals and have observed it in giraffes where, apparently, it is quite frequent. However, I had no knowledge of this behaviour taking place among lions.
Still thinking about the picture I was about to move to the next image when its caption called my attention. The mating animals were in fact members of the opposite sex! Thinking that this was even more interesting, I followed up the issue and learnt that a few days earlier a similar picture had become “viral” in the social media and was extensively discussed.
I confess that I am skeptical about these kind of news and my first thought was that the original picture had been modified. To my surprise, lionesses with long hair have been observed both in captivity and in the wild. A well-known example is Mmamoriri that is part of a pride that resides somewhere in the Northern part of Chief’s Island in the Moremi Game Reserve.
Scientists believe that the quality and abundance of the mane reflects the health of the animal: a thick, dark one shows a vigorous and healthy animal. In addition, females prefer these strong males to perpetuate their genetic material in future generations.
So, what is the reason for a female to grow a mane? Geneticists believe that the emergence of these “tomlions” is due to a disruption of the embryo at conception or during more advanced stages of the pregnancy when the foetus gets exposed to higher than normal levels of male hormone. Whatever their genetic origin, the maned females survive very well. Further, their deceiving appearance is advantageous in keeping intruder males away from the pride and hyenas away from kills!
Fortunately, an investigation is underway to address this phenomenon and it is likely that we will have interesting findings in the near future.
This story would not be complete without mentioning that the opposite phenomenon -maneless lions- also occurs albeit more frequently and better known and studied. Such males are known from Benin (Pendjari National Park), Senegal, Sudan (Dinder National Park) and the first white lion of Timbavati in South Africa had no mane.
Without much doubt the most famous maneless lions were also man-eating ones. Two of them stopped the construction of the railway in the Tsavo River in Kenya for nine months and killed more than a hundred workers since March 1898. “The Man-eaters of Tsavo” written by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who was in charge of the work and shot them, is a fascinating read! The book is also the subject of a 1996 movie “The Ghost and the Darkness” (Paramount) with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas as the main protagonists, a poor substitute for a good read!
The area where these true human carnage took place is today part of the Tsavo National Park and, luckily, during one of our safaris to Tsavo East National Park in the 80’s, we were fortunate to find one of the possible descendants of these lions and attest that their manes are very scarce!
The “baldness” in these lions is attributed to an adaptation to the thorny vegetation in the park as their hair could interfere with their hunting. As their colleagues in Tsavo West that live in a similar environment have normal manes, I personally believe that their baldness, as in humans, is due to high levels of testosterone that may also explain its aggressive reputation.
Note: A similar article in Spanish was published in the “Muy Interesante” web page and it can be found here: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/hay-leonas-con-melena-521461839096