1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lion

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LION (Lat. leo, leonis; Gr. λέων). From the earliest historic times few animals have been better known to man than the lion. Its habitat made it familiar to all the races among whom human civilization took its origin. The literature of the ancient Hebrews abounds in allusions to the lion; and the almost incredible numbers stated to have been provided for exhibition and destruction in the Roman amphitheatres (as many as six hundred on a single occasion by Pompey, for example) show how abundant these animals must have been within accessible distance of Rome.

Even within the historic period the geographical range of the lion covered the whole of Africa, the south of Asia, including Syria, Arabia, Asia Minor, Persia and the greater part of northern and central India. Professor A. B. Meyer, director of the zoological museum at Dresden, has published an article on the alleged existence of the lion in historical times in Greece, a translation of which appears in the Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1905. Meyer is of opinion that the writer of the Iliad was probably acquainted with the lion, but this does not prove its former existence in Greece. The accounts given by Herodotus and Aristotle merely go to show that about 500 B.C. lions existed in some part of eastern Europe. The Greek name for the lion is very ancient, and this suggests, although by no means demonstrates, that it refers to an animal indigenous to the country. Although the evidence is not decisive, it seems probable that lions did exist in Greece at the time of Herodotus; and it is quite possible that the representation of a lion-chase incised on a Mycenean dagger may have been taken from life. In prehistoric times the lion was spread over the greater part of Europe; and if, as is very probable, the so-called Felis atrox be inseparable, its range also included the greater part of North America.

At the present day the lion is found throughout Africa (save in places where it has been exterminated by man) and in Mesopotamia, Persia, and some parts of north-west India. According to Dr W. T. Blanford, lions are still numerous in the reedy swamps, bordering the Tigris and Euphrates, and also occur on the west flanks of the Zagros mountains and the oak-clad ranges near Shiraz, to which they are attracted by the herds of swine which feed on the acorns. The lion nowhere exists in the table-land of Persia, nor is it found in Balūchistān. In India it is confined to the province of Kathiawar in Gujerat, though within the 19th century it extended through the north-west parts of Hindustan, from Bahāwalpur and Sind to at least the Jumna (about Delhi) southward as far as Khāndesh, and in central India through the Sagur and Narbuda territories, Bundelkund, and as far east as Palamau. It was extirpated in Hariāna about 1824. One was killed at Rhyli, in the Dumaoh district, Sagur and Narbuda territories, so late as in the cold season of 1847–1848; and about the same time a few still remained in the valley of the Sind river in Kotah, central India.

After a Drawing by Woll in Elliot’s Monograph of the Felidae.
Fig. 1.—Lion and Lioness (Felis leo).

The variations in external characters which lions present, especially in the colour and the amount of mane, as well as in the general colour of the fur, indicate local races, to which special names have been given; the Indian lion being F. leo gujratensis. It is noteworthy, however, that, according to Mr F. C. Selous, in South Africa the black-maned lion and others with yellow scanty manes are found, not only in the same locality, but even among individuals of the same parentage.

The lion belongs to the genus Felis of Linnaeus (for the characters and position of which see Carnivora), and differs from the tiger and leopard in its uniform colouring, and from all the other Felidae in the hair of the top of the head, chin and neck, as far back as the shoulder, being not only much longer, but also differently disposed from the hair elsewhere, being erect or directed forwards, and so constituting the characteristic ornament called the mane. There is also a tuft of elongated hairs at the end of the tail, one upon each elbow, and in most lions a copious fringe along the middle line of the under surface of the body, wanting, however, in some examples. These characters are, however, peculiar to the adults of the male sex; and even as regards coloration young lions show indications of the darker stripes and mottlings so characteristic of the greater number of the members of the genus. The usual colour of the adult is yellowish-brown, but it may vary from a deep red or chestnut brown to an almost silvery grey. The mane, as well as the long hair of the other parts of the body, sometimes scarcely differs from the general colour, but is usually darker and not unfrequently nearly black. The mane begins to grow when the animal is about three years old, and is fully developed at five or six.

In size the lion is only equalled or exceeded by the tiger among existing Felidae; and though both species present great variations, the largest specimens of the latter appear to surpass the largest lions. A full-sized South African lion, according to Selous, measures slightly less than 10 ft. from nose to tip of tail, following the curves of the body. Sir Cornwallis Harris gives 10 ft. 6 in., of which the tail occupies 3 ft. The lioness is about a foot less.

Fig. 2.—Front View of Skull of Lion.

The internal structure of the lion, except in slight details, resembles that of other Felidae, the whole organization being that of an animal adapted for an active, predaceous existence. The teeth especially exemplify the carnivorous type in its highest condition of development. The most important function they have to perform, that of seizing and holding firmly animals of considerable size and strength, violently struggling for life, is provided for by the great, sharp-pointed and sharp-edged canines, placed wide apart at the angles of the mouth, the incisors between them being greatly reduced in size and kept back nearly to the same level, so as not to interfere with their action. The jaws are short and strong, and the width of the zygomatic arches, and great development of the bony ridges on the skull, give ample space for the attachment of the powerful muscles by which they are closed. In the cheek-teeth the sectorial or scissor-like cutting function is developed at the expense of the tubercular or grinding, there being only one rudimentary tooth of the latter form in the upper jaw, and none in the lower. They are, however, sufficiently strong to break bones of large size. The tongue is long and flat, and remarkable for the development of the papillae of the anterior part of the dorsal surface, which (except near the edge) are modified so as to resemble long, compressed, recurved, horny spines or claws, which, near the middle line, attain the length of one-fifth of an inch. They give the part of the tongue on which they occur the appearance and feel of a coarse rasp. The feet are furnished with round soft pads or cushions covered with thick, naked skin, one on the under surface of each of the principal toes, and one larger one of trilobed form, behind these, under the lower ends of the metacarpal and metatarsal bones, which are placed nearly vertically in ordinary progression. The claws are large, strongly compressed, sharp, and exhibit the retractile condition in the highest degree, being drawn backwards and upwards into a sheath by the action of an elastic ligament so long as the foot is in a state of repose, but exerted by muscular action when the animal strikes its prey.

The lion lives chiefly in sandy plains and rocky places interspersed with dense thorn-thickets, or frequents the low bushes and tall rank grass and reeds that grow along the sides of streams and near the springs where it lies in wait for the larger herbivorous animals on which it feeds. Although occasionally seen abroad during the day, especially in wild and desolate regions, where it is subject to little molestation, the night is, as in the case of so many other predaceous animals, the period of its greatest activity. It is then that its characteristic roar is chiefly heard, as thus graphically described by Gordon-Cumming:—

“One of the most striking things connected with the lion is his voice, which is extremely grand and peculiarly striking. It consists at times of a low deep moaning, repeated five or six times, ending in faintly audible sighs; at other times he startles the forest with loud, deep-toned, solemn roars, repeated in quick succession, each increasing in loudness to the third or fourth, when his voice dies away in five or six low muffled sounds very much resembling distant thunder. At times, and not unfrequently, a troop may be heard, roaring in concert, one assuming the lead, and two, three or four more regularly taking up their parts, like persons singing a catch. Like our Scottish stags at the rutting season, they roar loudest in cold frosty nights; but on no occasions are their voices to be heard in such perfection, or so intensely powerful, as when two or three troops of strange lions approach a fountain to drink at the same time. When this occurs, every member of each troop sounds a bold roar of defiance at the opposite parties; and when one roars, all roar together, and each seems to vie with his comrades in the intensity and power of his voice. The power and grandeur of these nocturnal concerts is inconceivably striking and pleasing to the hunter’s ear.”

“The usual pace of a lion,” C. J. Andersson says, “is a walk, and, though apparently rather slow, yet, from the great length of his body, he is able to get over a good deal of ground in a short time. Occasionally he trots, when his speed is not inconsiderable. His gallop—or rather succession of bounds—is, for a short distance, very fast—nearly or quite equal to that of a horse.”

“The lion, as with other members of the feline family,” the same writer says, “seldom attacks his prey openly, unless compelled by extreme hunger. For the most part he steals upon it in the manner of a cat, or ambushes himself near to the water or a pathway frequented by game. At such times he lies crouched upon his belly in a thicket until the animal approaches sufficiently near, when, with one prodigious bound, he pounces upon it. In most cases he is successful, but should his intended victim escape, as at times happens, from his having miscalculated the distance, he may make a second or even a third bound, which, however, usually prove fruitless, or he returns disconcerted to his hiding-place, there to wait for another opportunity.” His food consists of all the larger herbivorous animals of the country in which he resides—buffaloes, antelopes, zebras, giraffes or even young elephants or rhinoceroses. In cultivated districts cattle, sheep, and even human inhabitants are never safe from his nocturnal ravages. He appears, however, as a general rule, only to kill when hungry or attacked, and not for the mere pleasure of killing, as with some other carnivorous animals. He, moreover, by no means limits himself to animals of his own killing, but, according to Selous, often prefers eating game that has been killed by man, even when not very fresh, to taking the trouble to catch an animal himself.

The lion appears to be monogamous, a single male and female continuing attached to each other irrespectively of the pairing season. At all events the lion remains with the lioness while the cubs are young and helpless, and assists in providing her and them with food, and in educating them in the art of providing for themselves. The number of cubs at a birth is from two to four, usually three. They are said to remain with their parents till they are about three years old.

Though not strictly gregarious, lions appear to be sociable towards their own species, and often are found in small troops sometimes consisting of a pair of old ones with their nearly full-grown cubs, but occasionally of adults of the same sex; and there seems to be evidence that several lions will associate for the purpose of hunting upon a preconcerted plan. Their natural ferocity and powerful armature are sometimes turned upon one another; combats, often mortal, occur among male lions under the influence of jealousy; and Andersson relates an instance of a quarrel between a hungry lion and lioness over the carcase of an antelope which they had just killed, and which did not seem sufficient for the appetite of both, ending in the lion not only killing, but devouring his mate. Old lions, whose teeth have become injured with constant wear, become “man-eaters,” finding their easiest means of obtaining a subsistence in lurking in the neighbourhood of villages, and dashing into the tents at night and carrying off one of the sleeping inmates. Lions never climb.

With regard to the character of the lion, those who have had opportunities of observing it in its native haunts differ greatly. The accounts of early writers as to its courage, nobility and magnanimity have led to a reaction, causing some modern authors to accuse it of cowardice and meanness. Livingstone goes so far as to say, “nothing that I ever learned of the lion could lead me to attribute to it either the ferocious or noble character ascribed to it elsewhere,” and he adds that its roar is not distinguishable from that of the ostrich. These different estimates depend to a great extent upon the particular standard of the writer, and also upon the circumstance that lions, like other animals, show considerable individual differences in character, and behave differently under varying circumstances.  (W. H. F.; R. L.*)