If the bible stories and cave paintings are anything to go by, we can assume that the lion has been lording it over the landscape for many centuries, and not just in Africa either. However, the evolution of the lion remains shrouded in some mystery and speculation, even today.
Lions, and all members of the cat family, are believed to be descended from a common ancestor, called Proailurus Lemanensis which means simply ‘first cat’, a cat-like creature that stalked the Earth 25 million years ago.
This small compact animal, just larger than a domestic cat, had a long tail, and sharp semi-retractable claws. Some studies suggest that this creature was the forefather of mongooses, civets and hyenas too.
It is thought that the next link in the chain, Pseudaelurus, evolved from this small serval-like creature about 20 million years ago, and gave rise to four species of cat- to cougar-sized felids as it spread across the globe from its origins in Eurasia.
One of these groups became the sabre-toothed cats which died out totally, along with their large prey species such as mammoths, about 10 000 years ago. Another sub-group survived to become the cats of today – all 44 species, big and small.
Cave paintings dating back 17 000 years, found in the Chauvet Caves of France, show clear depictions of modern day lions, suggesting that they existed in tandem with the sabre-tooth cats and thus cannot be evolved from them – putting paid to a long-held belief.
Most of the information on hand today stems from fossil evidence, which changes just about every time new fossils are discovered. However, almost all of the species of early lion have become extinct, leaving only one true species and 12 debatable sub-species, making it difficult to trace their lineage from the scattered evidence available.
Now, new research published in BMC Evolutionary Biology is delving into the DNA of these extinct specimens to learn more about their past, by matching their location with their genetic makeup. By means of complicated calculations scientists are able to determine which types of lions moved to which areas and match these movements with recorded climatic and ecological variations to find out why. This may provide clues as to why they died out, and help us to prevent further declines in lion populations worldwide.
It is hoped that this will contribute to the conservation of our existing big cats, but for now it is up to us to appreciate and enjoy these lordly animals in a responsible, sustainable manner.