Atlas Lion: All you need to know

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1) The Primary Characteristics
2) Previous Habitats
3) Taxonomic History
-Genetic research
4) Life in Captivity
5) Behaviour and ecology
6) The Felines are on the Lion's lair
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Today we approach the famous Atlas lion also called the barbarian lion that was part of the Panthera leo leo population of North Africa, to this day it has disappeared from the region. Initially appearing in the coastal regions of Barbary Maghreb, this population has been decimated following the extension of weapons as well as bonuses to kill lions. Following a complete control of hunting and observation records, it is revealed that some low-density groups survived in Algeria until the 1960s and in Morocco until around 1965.

lion from the male atlas

Until 2017, the Barbary lion was considered a separate subspecies of lion. However, morphological and genetic analyses show that the Barbary lion does not differ significantly from samples collected in West and North Africa. The lion in the atlas then belongs to the same phylogeographic group as the Asian lion.

The Barbary lion has known several denominations such as "Berber lion", "North African lion", "Atlas lion" as well as "Egyptian lion".

From now on, there is no longer any lion project in the atlas. Five lions had been determined to have enough barbaric DNA to save this species from extinction. The only lioness was Sarabi who died of cancer in 2007, and it is unlikely that all four males are still alive.

1) The Primary Characteristics
According to stuffed males in zoological collections, the length from head to tail varies from 2.35 to 2.8 metres, for females a maximum length of about 2.5 metres is reached. The colour of the atlas lion's zoological specimens ranges from light to dark fawn. Concerning the mane, in some cases it extended over the shoulder as well as under the belly and up to the elbows. The hair on the mane is measured from 8 to 22 cm long.

The Atlas lion was the largest lion according to some 19th century hunting stories, giving a male weight ranging from 270 to 300 kg. However, these data are not necessarily accurate because the captive lions were significantly smaller, however this could be explained by poor conditions of detention preventing them from developing to their full potential.

barbaric lion

Mane variation has long been taken into account as a morphological characteristic for granting subspecies status to lion populations.

However, the development of the mane differs according to age and region, so it is not a sufficient criterion for subspecies identification. The size of the mane is not estimated as evidence of the origins of the Barbary lions.

In order to be based on concrete facts, the results of mitochondrial DNA research support the genetic distinction of Barbary lions in a single haplotype found in museum specimens and believed to be of Barbary Lion descent. The presence of this haplotype is considered a reliable molecular marker for identifying captive Barbary lions.

It is tangible that Barbary lions have developed a long-haired mane, due to the low temperatures in the Atlas Mountains compared to other African regions, especially in winter.

2) Previous Habitats
Some old accounts testify that in Egypt, lions were omnipresent in the Sinai Peninsula, along the Nile, in the deserts of East and West, in the Wadi El Natrun region and on the maritime coast of the Mediterranean. Various historical observations and hunting records from the 19th and 20th centuries show that lions occupied the Atlas countries from Tunisia to Morocco.

In Algeria, the Barbary Lion appears in the hills and wooded mountains between the Pic de Taza in the east, the west of Ouarsenis and the plain of the North Celif River. By the 1830s, lions had probably been eliminated near coastal and human settlements. By the middle of the 19th century, the number of lions had been considerably reduced because bonuses were awarded for murder. Until about 1884, the cedar forests of Chelia and the surrounding mountains were still home to lions, which disappeared in the Bône region in 1890, the Khroumire and Souk Ahras regions in 1891 and the Batna province in 1893. The last lion observed in Algeria was in 1956 in Beni Ourtilane.

In Morocco, the last lion hunt of the atlas took place in 1942 near Tizi n'Tichka, in the Atlas Mountains. A small remaining population may have survived in isolated mountain areas until the early 1960s.


3) Taxonomic History
In 1758, Carl Linnaeus proposed the scientific name "Felis leo" to designate a specimen of a lion from Constantine in Algeria. Following this description, some specimens of North African lion were described and listed as subspecies in the 19th century:

Felis Leo Barbaricus exhibited by the Austrian zoologist Johann Nepomuk Meyer in 1826 was a lion skin from the Barbarian coast.

Felis leo nubicus depicted by Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville in 1843 was a male lion from Nubia sent by Antoine Clot from Cairo to Paris and died in the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in 1841.

In the 20th century, many debates and polemics on the classification of lions and the validity of subspecies took place:

In 1939, Glover Morrill Allen evaluated F. l. barbaricus and nubicus as synonymous with F. l. l. l. l. leo.

Reginald Innes Pocock ranked the lion in the Panthera genre when he wrote about the Asian lion.

In 1951, John Ellerman and Terence Morrison-Scott admitted only two subspecies of lion to the Palaearctic kingdom, namely the African lion Panthera leo leo leo leo and the Asian lion P. l. persica.

However, various authors consider P. l. nubicus as a confirmed subspecies and synonymous with P. l. massaica.

In 2005, P. l. barbarica, nubica and somaliensis were associated under P. l. l. leo.

In 2016, IUCN Red List enumerators adopted P. l. l. leo for all lion populations in Africa.

In 2017, the Cat Classification Working Group of the Cat Specialist Group grouped the lion populations of North, West, Central Africa and Asia into P. l. l. leo.

lion of the atlas

Genetic research
In 2006, results of a phylogeographic analysis using samples of African and Asian lion were released. A vertebra from the Natural History Museum in France was one of the samples, this vertebra from the Nubian part of Sudan. For mitochondrial DNA, these samples correspond to lion skull samples from the Central African Republic, Ethiopia and the northern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Despite the fact that the Barbary lion is different morphologically, its unique genetics remains questionable. In a comprehensive study on the evolution of lions, 357 samples of both wild and captive lions from India and Africa were analysed. The hypothesis that this group developed within East Africa has been verified, and that approximately 118,000 years ago, this group travelled north and west during the first wave of lion development.

Since then, it has been divided into Africa and then West Asia. African lions may be a single population that has crossed during several waves of migration since the Late Pleistocene.

natural history museum paris

4) Life in Captivity
The lions kept in the menagerie of the Tower of London in the Middle Ages were Atlas lions, DNA tests carried out on two carefully preserved skulls testify to this.

The lions present in the Rabat zoo displayed characteristics considered typical of the Barbary Lion.

Arrived in March 2010, two cubs were moved to the Texas Zoo in Victoria, the WildLink International program was set up to ensure the survival of Atlas lions.

A barbaric lioness was sent to the Port Lympne wildlife park in 2011 to get closer to a male.

Living Treasures Wild Animal Park in New Castle, Pennsylvania, claims to keep two Barbary lions in a park collection. The Zoo des Sables d'Olonne in France, would also keep a male and female Atlas lion.

elongated male lion

5) Behaviour and ecology
Atlas lions began to become rare at the beginning of the 20th century, when they could be seen in small family groups or as a couple. Despite the various persecutions, lions lived in groups and particularly in the eastern Maghreb.

From the time gazelles and deer became rare in the Atlas Mountains, lions attacked farm animals, as well as wild boars and red deer.

Sympatric predators in this region included the African leopard and the Atlas bear.

6) The Felines are on the Lion's lair
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