Asiatic lioness adopts leopard cub

February 28, 2020 • 9:00 am

by Greg Mayer

A paper just published by Dheeraj Mittal and colleagues in Ecosphere reports an Asiatic lioness (Panthera leo persica) that adopted a leopard (Panthera pardus) cub, nursing and feeding it along with its own two cubs for six weeks.

Asiatic lioness, leopard cub, and lion cub in the Gir Forest, India. Photo by D. Mittal.

As WEIT readers know, Asiatic lions survive in only a single relict population in Gujarat in northwestern India, where they coexist with leopards (but not tigers, which have been extirpated in Gujarat). As the only lions in all of Asia, they are carefully monitored by Indian wildlife biologists, and in December 2018 they spotted the leopard cub in the company of the lions. From the paper:

Contrary to the accepted understanding of lion–leopard interactions, in December 2018, we came across an adult free-ranging Asiatic lioness (Panthera leo persica) taking care of a leopard cub (P. pardus fusca) in addition to her own young cubs in the Gir forests of Gujarat, Western India (Fig. 1A). Over the course of the next one and a half months,we intimately monitored this lioness that was recorded to nurse the leopard cub and rear it as her own (Fig. 2). The leopard cub (a male of~2 months with characteristic blue haze in its eyes that indicated its very young age; Fig. 1B) was always found to be associated with the lioness: suckling from her, feeding from kills that she made, and playing with its foster siblings (Fig. 2). The prolonged duration and the ecological context of the observed foster care between these two sympatric and competing felids are bizarre and stimulate intriguing behavioral questions.

The New York Times interviewed one of Mittal’s co-authors, Stotra Chakrabarti of the University of Minnesota.

“The lioness took care of him like one of her own,” nursing him and sharing meat that she hunted, Dr. Chakrabarti said.

His new siblings, too, were welcoming, playing with their spotty new pal and occasionally following him up trees. In one photo, the leopard pounces on the head of one of his adoptive brothers, who is almost twice his size and clearly a good sport. “It looked like two big cubs and one tiny runt of the litter,” Dr. Chakrabarti said.

He has been studying the park’s lions for nearly seven years. This unlikely association “was surely the most ‘wow’ moment I’ve come across,” Dr. Chakrabarti said. His fellow researchers with an Asiatic lion conservation project in India, some who have been watching the big cats for decades, had “also not seen anything like this,” he said.

Sadly, the leopard cub was found dead after about six weeks. An autopsy revealed that it died of a congenital femoral hernia; it had not been abandoned or killed by the lions, and, given its condition, it was probably doomed from the start.

From an evolutionary perspective, rearing an allospecific cub would not be advantageous. Indeed, leopards and lions are competitors, and will kill one another as opportunity arises.  But, to paraphrase Yoda, the Baby Schema is strong with this one, and the juvenile features of essentially all amniotes that elicit the “awwww” response in humans seems to work in lions, too. It leads in this instance to what Mittal el al. call a nonadaptive ‘reproductive error’.

Mittal, D, S. Chakrabarti, S.B. Khambda, and J.K. Bump. 2020. Spots and manes: the curious case of foster care between two competing felids. Ecosphere 11(2):e03047. pdf

Caturday felid trifecta; Tiger, Lion, Serval, and Cheetahs (our four felids are…)

November 16, 2019 • 1:52 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry is working on a Caturday felid post, but, as we all know, he is traveling in Antarctica, and thus the timing of its completion could be delayed. So, here are some felids for your Caturday fix! First up, a Siberian Tiger (Panthera, tigris altaica).

Siberian Tiger, Milwaukee Zoo, 2 November 2019.

Siberian Tigers are the largest of the living cats, with body lengths (not including tail) exceeding 9 feet and weights exceeding 650 pounds. Like all tigers they are endangered, and occur in the Russian Far East and far northeastern China. I photographed this and the other cats during my vertebrate zoology class’s field trip to the Milwaukee Zoo, which I’ve already shown some penguins from.

Siberian Tiger, Milwaukee Zoo, 2 November 2019.

A few years ago, zoos began calling Siberian Tigers “Amur Tigers”, the Amur River being the border between Russia and China. I’m not sure why zoos did this, but I see no reason to change the English vernacular name, since most English speakers know Siberia, but relatively few know what the Amur River is.

There was also a Lion (Panthera leo), a large male, also tight asleep.

Lion at the Milwaukee Zoo, 2 November 2019.

Lions, as WEIT readers may know, were once widely distributed in southwestern Asia, and one population survives in the Gir Forest of northern India; the fellow above is one of the African subspecies.

The Zoo also has a Serval (Felis serval), another African cat, but ‘mid-sized’. I couldn’t get a good photo, but the vdeo gives you some idea of the appearance of this spotted cat. Note the short tail and large ears. His name is Amos.

I also saw one of the Zoo’s Jaguars (Panthera onca), but couldn’t get a good picture. This is not a great shot of their two Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus), either– they were outdoors, and fairly far away. But they seemed so relaxed, I decided to post it anyway.

Cheetahs at the Milwaukee Zoo, 2 November 2019.

Cheetahs, like Lions, were once widely distributed in Africa and Asia. The Asian Cheetah was thought extinct, but was documented to still exist by camera-traps in Iran.

The present and former range of the Cheetah.

On this visit, I paid closer attention to the Zoo’s ‘big cat kitchen’, which is visible through a window, than I have on previous occasions.

The Big Cat Country kitchen at the Milwaukee Zoo, 2 November 2019.

I’ve visited the kitchen at the Racine Zoo. Not visible in this photo, but an important part of the kitchen’s tools from what I’ve seen in Racine, are the big knives used for cutting up the prepared diets, and the special protective gloves the keepers wear to protect their hands and fingers when doing so. There were two commercial diets visible on the counter: Toronto Zoo Feline Diet (which is horse meat, I believe)

Toronto Zoo Feline Diet.

and Nebraska Brand Feline Diet (this particular version is beef; the Zoo also uses a horse-based diet from Nebraska Brand).

Nebraska Brand Feline Diet (image flipped to allow easier label reading).

Also visible in the kitchen is a board which displays the daily ‘menus’ for each cat, along with their names. (That’s how I know the Serval is Amos. The male Lion must be Themba, the Siberian that I photographed is probably Kashtan, and both Cheetahs, Kira and Imara, are in the picture, but I don’t know which is which.) So, just as Jerry has been sharing his shipboard menus, here are the cat menus– click to enlarge!

Daily big cat “menus” at the Milwaukee Zoo.

Caturday felid: lions

December 4, 2010 • 10:23 am

by Greg Mayer

The Milwaukee County Zoo has a magnificent pair of African lions. The male has the sort of large, flaring mane that most of us associate with lions (but which is, in fact, subject to much individual and geographic variation; Asiatic lions, for example, have smaller manes).

The female is lithe and muscular; when living together in mixed-sex prides, females do much of the hunting.

We’ve mentioned lions here before at WEIT, including the almost mythical spotted ones.

Caturday Felid- spotted lions

June 5, 2010 • 9:08 am

by Greg Mayer

Spotted lions, semi-mythical beasts and the subject of cryptozoological inquiry, have been discussed here at WEIT before, but the spotted lions here are not mythical at all, because they are cubs.

Badu and Zuka, born April 16, 2010 at the Racine Zoo.

Lion cubs, as we’ve also discussed before here at WEIT, are born spotted, and retain some spots for up to two years or so, but eventually lose them as they mature. The controversy about spotted lions is whether adult spotted lions (only a single individual has ever been collected) form a distinct species or subspecies, or just a (very) rare pattern variation. There’s a bit of a controversy about the cubs’ spotting as well– Jerry, agreeing with the foremost student of animal coloration, Hugh B. Cott, thinks the spots are atavistic, while I think they are likely adaptively concealing.

These two cubs, Badu and Zuka, were born April 16, 2010 at the Racine (Wisconsin) Zoo. They are the younger siblings of lions that were Caturday felids last year. In the next photo, you can also see the spotting on the hindquarters and tail.

Badu and Zuka, born April 16, 2010 at the Racine Zoo.

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.

Caturday felid

August 15, 2009 • 12:02 am

by Greg Mayer

These two lions are father and son. The son is 23 months old.

Adult male lion at Racine Zoo
23 month old male lion at Racine Zoo
23 month old male lion at Racine Zoo

Note that at 23 months, the cub is nearly as big as his father, and has lost most, if not all, of the juvenile spotting earlier noted by Jerry. In the full size photo, there’s the slightest hint of some spotting remaining on his right thigh.

Lion cubs in Tulsa zoo

June 24, 2009 • 9:39 am

We have some Tuesday felids because this video, taken at the Tulsa zoo, demonstrates an evolutionary lesson.  Look closely at the cubs’ coats, and you’ll see leopard-like rosettes.  Many species of cats show this pattern in the cubs, even if the pattern disappears with growth.  It almost certainly reflects (as discussed in WEIT), an atavistic trait: the persistence in a descendant of traits that were adaptive only in an ancestor.  I suspect that the ancestor of lions had spots as adults, and that’s why they show up, briefly, in lion cubs.

Caturday felid

March 14, 2009 • 5:20 pm

by Greg Mayer

Until Jerry settles back in there’ll be a bit of overlap in our posting, so I’m providing this Caturday’s felid. Actually it’s two felids: the lion and the tiger (both of these links come from a wonderful page maintained by Virginia Hayssen of Smith College), both photographed today at the Racine Zoo in Wisconsin.

Two young lions at the Racine Zoo
Two young lions at the Racine Zoo

The tiger, unfortunately, sat back out of useful range of the camera I had with me, so I had to settle for this.

Tiger sign at Racine Zoo
Tiger sign at Racine Zoo

In captivity hybrids between lions and tigers, called ligers (male lion X tigress) and tigons (male tiger X lioness), can be produced, which are healthy and vigorous.  As Jerry explains in chapter 7 of WEIT, species are defined by their reproductive relationships: members of the same species will interbreed with one another, while members of different species are kept from successfully reproducing by one or more reproductive isolating barriers. Why, then, do we consider lions and tigers different species?

Most people think of lions as being from eastern and southern Africa, but within historic times lions ranged across north Africa and southeastern Europe through southwest Asia to northern India.  One population of Asiatic lions still survives, in the Gir Forest, closely protected by the Indian government.

Historic distribution of the lion in north Africa, Europe, and Asia
Historic distribution of the lion in north Africa, Europe, and Asia

Tigers were widespread in Asia, from the Caucasus to Siberia in the north and Java and Bali in the south. Until man began to decimate them, lions and tigers broadly overlapped in southern Asia, but remained distinct, without interbreeding. Thus, in nature, lions and tigers did not interbreed. And the full definition of a species, given by Ernst Mayr in 1940, is that species are groups of actually or potentially interbreeding populations in nature, reproductively isolated from other such groups.