Spotted Lions

Vast areas of Africa remained sparsely inhabited until well into the 20th century, and I think this is why more megafauna survives on that continent than any other.  Some quite large African animals were unknown to Western science until the 1900’s, including mountain gorillas, bonobos, and okapis. A rare big cat, probably extinct now, could be added to that list. Last week, I wrote about post speciation hybridization events in big cats, and following the completion of that article, I recalled reading about reports of spotted lions in Africa.  I wondered if a population of leopard/lion hybrids might recently have existed on the dark continent.  I researched everything I could find about spotted lions on the internet, and the verdict is inconclusive.

Spotted lion, illustration

Photoshopped image of a spotted lion.  

A pelt of a spotted lion killed by a Kenyan farmer in 1931.  This is the only proof they ever existed.

During 1931 a Kenyan farmer shot and killed a pair of spotted lions that were stalking an herd of buffalo.  A few other locals had also seen spotted lions, and the natives knew this animal as the marozi and distinguished it from a leopard.  Later, Kenneth Dower led an unsuccessful expedition to find spotted lions.  Lion cubs often have spots that they retain through sub-adulthood, but reports of spotted lions hunting suggested these were adults.  Spotted lions were reportedly intermediate in size between lions and leopards.  There are 3 possibilities.  The marozi may have been a distinct species or subspecies of lion adapted to living in a forested montane habitat.  (All of them were seen at high elevations in the mountains.)  They may have been a population of lion/leopard hybrids.  Or they may have been a population of lions with a mutation for a spotted coat.  Scientists could answer this question with a DNA analysis of the pelt from the specimens shot by the Kenyan farmer, but so far no one has attempted to do this.

Lions share a close evolutionary relationship with leopards, but presently the physical appearance and behavior patterns of the 2 species are much different.  Lions live in prides and hunt in open habitats, while leopards are solitary and prefer environments with more trees and bushes.  The common ancestor of both likely had a spotted coat.  Lions lost their spots when they began occupying tawny-colored savannahs and deserts where a plain coat offered better camouflage.  It’s a curious possibility that a population of spotted lions, closely related to the ancestor of all lions and leopards, may have continued to exist until the 20th century.  I’m convinced they are extinct now.  They may have been a relict population killed off by farmers.


One Response to “Spotted Lions”

  1. ina puustinen westerholm Says:

    My vote..go for the DNA testing! ina

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