Over 20 subspecies have been described by parts of the African continent, numerous based on zoological garden samples. Because captivity conditions affect skull shape, these specimens are of little value based on taxonomic descriptions. Many authors have not recognized subspecies, but Hemmer (1974a) recognized seven subspecies in Africa. There is little quantitative data on differences between subspecies and, in general, subspecies are morphologically ambiguous, although isolation of lion populations in some areas results in a loss of genetic heterozygosity and genetic differences between subspecies may exist.
O’Brien et al. (1987) found that populations from the Serengeti and Kruger National Parks were so genetically similar as to warrant inclusion in a single African race, P. leo leo. Subsequent genetic evidence has supported the distinction between an African – Asian subspecies. However, this seems less well supported by studies including better sampling from West and Central Africa, which show the distinction between the lions of West and Central Africa (including India) on the one hand and the lions of South and East Africa on the other.
The name of the lion comes from the Greek word “Leon”. Firstly it was described as Felis Leo (Linnaeus) in 1758 from a specimen found in Constantine, Algeria. R.I.Pocock changed the genus’ name to Panthera leo in 1917 after the cat family split into two subfamilies: Pantherinae, the cats that roar, and Felinae, the cats that don’t roar just purr.
The genus Panthera has four species
- Panthera leo is the lion
- Panthera pardus is the leopard with three sub-species
- Panthera onca is the jaguar from the South and Central America
- Panthera tigris is the tiger of tropical Asia with five sub-species
Members of the genus Panthera are characterized by an elastic muscle in the hyoid apparatus, which allows free movement of the larynx and roaring voices. The genus name Panthera was not officially accepted by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature until 1985. The earliest lion fossils date to around 3.5 million years ago and were found at Leatoli in Tanzania. In South Africa, fossils dating to 2.82.4 million years BC have been found in the Sterkfontein Caves in Gauteng.
Despite the genetic hybridization that gives rise to varieties such as the white lion of the Timbavati, only two living extant lion subspecies are recognized
- Panthera leo leo the African lion
- Panthera leo persica. the Asiatic lion