Caturday felid: the Spotted Lion

January 30, 2010 • 1:22 pm

by Greg Mayer

One of the most enigmatic of the felids is the spotted lion. Indeed, it’s so enigmatic that it might, in some senses, be said to not even exist.

As you may recall from Jerry’s earlier posting of a video of lion cubs, lions are born with spots, which disappear as they mature. Jerry and I disputed whether such patterns in young animals are atavistic or adaptive, but my concern today is not with whether spots are adaptive, but whether there are spotted lions at all.

The photograph above is the best evidence we have for the existence of spotted lions. (The skin’s total length is 8 ft. 8 in., so it’s not a cub!). I’ve previously noted that photographs are not the best evidence for documenting the existence of a previously unknown species of animal, but in this case we have the benefit of the fact that the specimen in the photograph was examined by Reginald Pocock of the British Museum (Natural History) in the 1930s. Here is some of what Pocock, a world authority on cats, had to say, about the specimen loaned to him by Kenneth Gandar Dower (subscription required):

…it is a remarkable specimen owing to the distinctness of the spots in a beast of its size.

It is a male. … From it’s size I guessed it to be about three years old, a year or more short of full size.

…the peculiarity of the skin lies in the distinctness of its pattern of spots, consisting of large “jaguarine” rosettes arranged in obliquely vertical lines and extending over the flanks, shoulders and thighs up to the darker spinal area where they disappear.

As is well known, lion-cubs at birth generally, but not always, show a pattern of spots or stripes supposed, probably correctly, to be the remnants of an ancestral pattern transmitted from the time when lions were denizens of forests or jungles. In nearly all cases this juvenile pattern vanishes at three or four months on the body, but persists longer on the belly and legs and may sometimes be visible on those parts at maturity, especially apparently in sone lionesses from East Africa. Mr. Gandar Dower’s lion-skin is quite exceptional in this respect.

Pocock went on to indicate the absence of this pattern in a large series of adult specimens at the British Museum and the United States National Museum, but noted one account and one photograph that indicated at least an approach to being spotted. He also examined a skull provided by Gandar Dower, which may have come from this specimen, or from a female shot at the same time; the skulls were not kept when the animals were skinned, but one was retrieved later. Pocock concluded

…it is clear that no precise conclusion can be formed regarding this interesting beast until skins and skulls of adults have been collected.

As noted above, the skin was brought to Pocock by Kenneth Gandar Dower. Gandar Dower had read accounts of the spotted lion and mounted an expedition to East Africa to try to find one, but was unsuccessful, save for the skin and skull which he obtained from Michael Trent, a farmer in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya, who had shot a pair of spotted lions a few years earlier. Gandar Dower recounted his expedition in a book, The Spotted Lion. Bernard Heuvelmans summarized Gandar Dower’s investigations, and recounted later stories of the spotted lion in his On the Track of Unknown Animals.

So what is the spotted lion? There are several possibilities. First, it might represent a distinct population that lives in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya. In this case, it might be a species distinct from other lions, or it could be a geographical race or subspecies of the familiar lion. Second, it could just be a rare individual variation, in the same way that populations of house cats have spotted, striped, particolored, solid, etc. patterns occurring in individuals that are part of the same breeding population (and, indeed, part of the same litter). Finally, it could be a hybrid, perhaps between a lion and a leopard. Pocock, however, was well familiar with interspecific hybrids in large cats, and did not mention this possibility; also, interspecific hybridization in large cats is known (almost?) exclusively among captive animals. So, a hybrid origin does not seem likely to me.

If the first possibility is true, then there would indeed be something we can rightfully call the spotted lion. If the second is true, while there would then be known to exist lions with spots, there would not be a distinct natural population. And if the third is true, then there aren’t spotted lions at all– only lion-leopard hybrids that have spots. Further study of the skin or supposed skull, especially using modern techniques, might have allowed at least some of the possibilities to be eliminated, but unfortunately, Pocock apparently did not retain them at the British Museum, and I am unaware of their current whereabouts.  (I had thought they were at the British Museum until reading Pocock’s full account, in which he notes the specimens were left for him to examine, but makes no mention of them being donated to the collection.) To solve this problem, we thus must, as Pocock did over 70 years ago, await the collection of more specimens.


Gandar Dower, K. 1937. The Spotted Lion. Little Brown, Boston.

Heuvelmans, B. 1959. On the Track of Unknown Animals. Hill and Wang, New York.

Pocock, R.I. 1937. Note on the spotted lion of the Aberdares. pp. 317-321 in Gandar Dower, 1937.

13 thoughts on “Caturday felid: the Spotted Lion

  1. For correctness #1 would have to read “a population which *had* lived in the Aberdare mountains”. There is no guarantee that a unique population had become extinct since then.

    As for the skulls, if there were no guarantee that a particular skull went with a particular skin, there is no value in looking at the skull – it may as well be a baboon skull for what it’s worth.

    I’ve never heard of big cat hybrids; is there some truth to the “lion lying with the lamb”?

    Has anyone else gone out there and interviewed the locals about the spotted lion?

    1. Yes, it is possible that there once was a distinct population in the Aberdares, but that it has now gone extinct. The value of the skull is much reduced by the uncertainty of its provenance, but Gandar Dower and Trent thought it was from one of the pair shot by Trent (Pocock thought the skull to be that of a female). Big cat hybrids, in many combinations, are well known, for example ligers and tigons. The classic reference is A.P. Gray. 1971. Mammalian Hybrids. Slough, England: Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux, which covers all mammals. There are a number of websites devoted to hybrid big cats, most of uncertain or dubious reliability, which can be easily found with a search.

  2. I must be missing something. There was clearly once a spotted (almost adult) lion, call him Fred (now, sadly represented by his skin). Fred was a spotted lion, ergo, there once was and may still be spotted lions. By Aristotelean logic: The premise “All lions have no spots” is defeated by the simple observance of one spotted lion, Fred. And all the observances of Hempelian non-spotted non-lions, or even non-spotted lions, or even spotted non-lions (as usual) is of no help (despite the Humean and abductive support one normally assumes.

    Clearly, spotted lions are not just possible in principle, but have been observed in Fred. Or, despite being a lion in every other respect, Fred is not a lion (those damn spots, you see).

    The rest about just what kind of spotted lion Fred is borders on the silly, ranging from, well, he is not really a lion (hybrid) to he was a one-off lion: both implying some sort of prime-lion that defines all other lions. I thought we were well beyond such thinking.

    1. Yes, it seems something is missing, unless I’m mistaken.

      It definitely helps to observe non-spotted lions, since that forms the basis of the tested prediction “all lions are spotless”. [Of course, especially to their face. :-D] Basic 101 falsifiability on evolutionary kinship.

      To overthrow that hypotheses you would have to test alternative hypotheses of the kind presented by the post.

      The verified existence of a single spotted lion would inform us of the possibility that such exist, but not test any hypotheses. As the saying goes, “plural of anecdote isn’t data”, even less is a single context-less anecdote helpful here.

      As for the rest, no one is seriously using abduction, at least what I can observe. Probably for the same reason that we don’t use induction; it doesn’t work. A large part of that is because it is inconsistent on its own grounds.

      [Induction implies that induction wouldn’t work, as it doesn’t measure remaining uncertainty yet asserts that it is “the problem” it is taking care of. Abduction implies that abduction doesn’t work, as there are several possible explanations for its “explanation” yet asserts that it has to explain (i.e. assert uniquely).

      Compare with falsification, which passes a simple but necessary meta test. I.e. it falsifiably (reliably) falsifies.]

      Btw, it’s a kitteh! (I feel safe saying that, seeing it’s a skin. :-o)

      1. To be fair to induction though, it’s a great tool to form hypotheses and to achieve relative (context-dependent) knowledge as a kind of “trial-and-reward” learning procedure. As context sets the uncertainty, its weakness isn’t fatal here. For the same reason, testing is in that perspective merely the complementary “trial-and-failure” learning.

        It is, AFAIU, the interplay between testing and its application on generalizable theories that achieve absolute and reliably quantifiable knowledge.

        In other words, while testing is a necessary means of travel, it isn’t sufficient. It only tells us what doesn’t work in a given context as per above. We need theories to point out direction and make it go anywhere significant.

  3. I raised Hempel (and his paradox) to make the simple point that all it takes is one spotted lion, Fred, to defeat all the other claims (no matter how many non-spotted lions, or spotted non-lions). The only escape now is to declare Fred a non-lion, and do so precisely because of his spots (as in a Hempelian black swan just, well, damn it, can’t be a swan).

    I raised abduction as reasoning to a best explanation would seem to make all the other reasoning in the article moot: Fred, therefore, is/was a lion, and, yes, with spots.

    Now, does any of this matter? No. Species have to be fluid (i.e., at best Wittgenstein family resemblance) concepts, and that is the important conclusion. From that perspective, a spotted lion, like one with 6 toes on the front paws (not uncommon) is still a lion.

    1. As noted in the post, the skin was not kept at the British Museum (Natural History), and its current whereabouts are unknown, so unfortunately there are no hairs to test. I, too, had wondered about DNA analysis of the skin, until I found out the skin had never made it into the museum’s collection. Thus we still need specimens to know whether or not there are spotted lions.


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