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Types of Lions: The Different Lion Species in the World

There is only one lion species, Panthera leo, split into two subspecies. While they are the same species there are still differences between the two. Populations in different regions have different names and some lions have unique characteristics that set them apart.

Lions have a wide distribution throughout the world, even when considering their greatly diminished population. 

Lions are officially split into two subspecies. But, this isn’t the only way of differentiating between different types of lions, as they are often split in other ways:

  • Lion subspecies
  • Lion types by region
  • Unique types of lion

The term “subspecies” relates to their genetics, but there are also differences based on region and habitat.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the different types of lions and see how subspecies, geography, and other factors affect looks and behaviors.

Lion Taxonomy and Classification

All lions belong to the same species, Panthera leo. They are felines of the subfamily, Pantherinae. They are members of the Panthera genus, closely related to other powerful feline predators like tigers, leopards, and jaguars.

SpeciesPanthera leo

Lions are closely related to some of the deadliest felines in the world, their cousins in the Panthera genus:

  • Leopard
  • Jaguar
  • Tiger
  • Snow leopard

They are also related to cats in the Felinae subfamily, like mountain lions, bobcats and lynxes, and domestic cats.

Lion Taxonomy and Classification

Lion Subspecies

There are two officially recognized lion subspecies: Panthera leo leo and Panthera leo melanochaita. Until several years ago there were eleven suggested subspecies, but it was concluded that lions can be separated into only two subspecies after further research.

Although lions were divided into many subspecies in the past, today there are only two recognizes subspecies, Panthera leo leo and Panthera leo melanochaita.

The two subspecies are sometimes referred to as the northern and the southern lion. Both subspecies live in Africa, but only the northern lion can be found in the wild in Asia. The lions in Asia are also known as “Asian lions”.

NameNorthern LionSouthern Lion
Scientific NamePanthera leo leoPanthera leo melanochaita
RangeWest Africa, northern Central Africa, and the Gujarat state of India.Sparse populations throughout northeastern Africa.Throughout southern and eastern Africa, with some populations up to northeastern and northern Central Africa.
SizeGenerally lighter, males rarely weigh more than 400 pounds.Heavier, large males can reach up to 500 pounds.
AppearanceSmaller and less bulky. They generally have a fold of skin on their bellies. Their manes are sparser and shorter or they can be almost maneless.Larger and noticeably bulkier.They lack the skin fold of the northern lion. They generally have full, thick, and long manes.
Group BehaviorThey form smaller groups, with prides of up to twelve females, and only one male. In India males and females rarely associate outside of mating.Prides can be much larger, with up to 30 individuals, rarely up to 40. More than one male lion may associate with a pride.
PreyLarge regional animals, but also smaller prey depending on availability.Southern lions hunt for larger animals on average. They cohabit with more of Africa’s large herbivores like African buffalos, wildebeests, and giraffes.
Genetic DiversityPopulations are more isolated and they are less genetically diverse. The Indian population is especially isolated.Southern lion populations are better connected and have more genetic diversity.They are also affected by habitat defragmentation which will lead to less diversity over time.

Other Potential Lion Subspecies

The range of the two subspecies isn’t clearly divided. There are regions where they overlap and intermixing between northern and southern lions occurs.

In these regions, new subspecies may form the interbreeding of the existing ones:

  • Central African lions: A mix between the northern and southern subspecies found in Central Africa.
  • Ethiopian lions: A mix native to Ethiopia, including the Ethiopian Highlands. They have large and dark manes.

In these areas, the two subspecies are also harder to distinguish from one another.[1][2]

Lion Types by Region

Besides the officially recognized subspecies, lions are also frequently divided by region. The most notable example of this is Asian and African lions. Even though populations of the northern subspecies are found both in Asia and Africa, they are considered distinct.

Lions are also distinguished by the region to which they are native. 

Many of these regional distinctions were used to divide lions into many subspecies in the past.

The most well know types of lions by region are the African and Asian lions. While some Asian and African populations are genetically similar, they are still differentiated by region.

African Lions

african lion

Lion populations in Africa are split between the two officially recognized subspecies, however, they are all collectively referred to as “African lions”.  

They’re all named African lions despite the physical and behavioral differences between South African and West African lions.

Asian Lions

Asian Lions
Image Source

Lions in Asia and in West, North, and northern Central Africa are genetically similar to each other. The small Indian population of lions is also referred to as “Asian lions”.

Other Regional Types of Lion

There were once different names for lion populations within the continent of Africa. 

Despite little genetic variety, the lion populations were divided based on perceived differences in appearance or in geographical range.

Barbary Lions

The Barbary lion was found in the wild throughout North Africa. The lion was named after the Barbary Coast. They are now extinct in the wild, but their genes live on through mixed lions in captivity all around the world.

Barbary lions looked different from other northern lions. They had thick and long manes, similar to southern lions. Mane size and color are affected by temperature so the larger manes may have been a result of the cooler winters of North Africa.

Besides their impressive manes Barbary lions were also said to be the largest type of lion weighing around 600 to 660 pounds. 

This is most certainly an overstatement since the largest southern lion specimens barely pass 600 pounds.[4]

Cape Lions

The Cape lion was a species found in the southwestern part of South Africa. This population was thought to be a distinct subspecies in the past. 

They were described as being large lions, with black manes.

Today it is known that Cape Lions were genetically similar to other lions throughout southern and southeastern Africa. Cape lions are considered part of the southern lion subspecies.

Cape Lions

Other Types of Lions

Many other lion subspecies were proposed in the past, with the main difference being their native region[6]:

  • Panthera leo persica / The Asian Lion: Found in the past from Iraq to India, now exclusively in Gujarat, India.
  • Panthera leo nubica / East African Lion: Found throughout eastern and northeastern Africa.
  • Panthera leo senegalensis: Found throughout West Africa.
  • Panthera leo azandica: Found in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • Panthera leo bleyenberghi: Found in the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, and Angola.
  • Panthera leo krugeri: Found throughout southern Africa, except the southwestern part.

Unique Types of Lions

Another way of categorizing lions is by unique adaptations and traits. Lions with distinct colors (like black-maned or white-colored) or a unique habitat are often referred to separately.

We’ll look at four interesting types of lions:

  • White Lions
  • Black-maned Lions
  • Maneless Lions
  • Desert Lions

White Lions

White Lion

White lions are real. These majestic animals possess recessive genes that cause leucism. Leucism is harmless and much like albinism, leucism affects the pigmentation of an animal.

Leucism only causes a loss in pigmentation of the hair and eyes and it isn’t harmful to the animal. 

They range from bright blonde to completely white, and their eyes can be blueish instead of the usual hazel.

Contrary to some misinformation, their color doesn’t affect their hunting abilities. They successfully hunt and survive in the wild by themselves.[5]

Black-Maned Lions

Black maned lion
Image Source

Lions can have black-colored manes. Mane color is affected by several factors, including testosterone levels and environmental temperature. 

The basic idea is that the cooler the temperature and the higher the testosterone, the darker the mane.

Strong males across Africa can be spotted with black manes. Lions throughout southern Africa (from the Ethiopian highlands) and the extinct Barbary lion frequently have black manes.[8]

While their manes can be black, completely black lions don’t exist.

Maneless Lions

Maneless Lion
Image Source

Male lions’ mane is their most recognizable feature, but not all male lions have manes. Some have short manes or no manes at all.

Here are some lion populations that frequently have maneless males:

  • Asian lions: Lions outside of Africa were typically maneless but they may have had short manes. In the Indian lion population manes are generally present, but cases of maneless males have been reported.
  • West African lions: Lions throughout West Africa are frequently maneless or have short manes.
  • Tsavo lions: Lions in the Tsavo region of Kenya are regularly spotted with no manes or very short ones. It’s been suggested that the lack of a mane may be an adaption for heat loss or to avoid the thorny vegetation in the area.[6]

Desert Lions

While we generally picture lions hunting across grassy Savannahs, they can adapt to many different environments. There are lion populations, like the one in the Namib Desert of Namibia that live in especially arid conditions.[7]

Lions are present and decently adapted to life in the desert. They can also be spotted throughout the Kalahari Desert, and Barbary lions used to roam the desert regions of northwest Africa.


There are many different types of lions. While all of them are part of the same species, Panthera leo can be divided by subspecies, the region they live in, or by some unique characteristic they have. 

The two official subspecies of lions are the northern and southern lion. By region, we have the Asian and African lions, the Barbary lion, the Cape lion, and many others. We can also differentiate other types of lions like white lions, black-maned lions, maneless lions, and even lions adapted to life in the desert.

About Codrin Frunzete

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