Wildlife

Rare Maned Lionesses Explained

If it looks like a male lion and is perceived as a male lion—well, sometimes it isn’t. That’s the case of Africa’s unusual maned lionesses, which sport a male’s luxurious locks and may even fool competitors.

Though uncommon, maned lionesses have been regularly sighted in the Mombo area of Botswana‘s Okavango Delta (including the individual pictured below), where the lion population may carry a genetic disposition toward the phenomenon, according to Luke Hunter, president of the big-cat conservation group Panthera, which collaborates with National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)

Hunter said it’s possible that maned lionesses in Mombo are related—including a safari favorite named Martina, which disappeared in 2002. (Learn more about how you can see the maned lionesses at Mombo Camp.)

A maned lioness in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Photograph courtesy Deon De Villiers.

Such masculine females likely occur when the embryo is disrupted, either at conception or while in the womb, he said by email.

“If the former case, the genetic contribution of the sperm—which determines the sex of the fetus in most mammals—was probably aberrant, giving rise to a female with some male characteristics.

“Alternatively and perhaps more likely, the problem may have occurred during gestation if the fetus was exposed to increased levels of androgens— male hormones such as testosterone.”

If a lion mother had abnormally high androgens during pregnancy, her female offspring may end up “masculinized”—a situation that occurs occasionally in people but which is rarely observed in wild animals.

A maned lioness with a fellow female. Photograph courtesy Ryan Green.

Whatever the case, such lionesses would likely be infertile but otherwise “perfectly capable” of surviving, Hunter noted. (See more lion pictures.)

In fact, their manes may actually be a boon to the pride—for instance, if the female is perceived as a male, she may better defend kills from hyenas or the pride from attacks by foreign males. In the case of the pictured female, Hunter said, it seems like she’s treated as a lioness by the rest of the pride.

“It would be interesting to know if she behaved like a male,” he added. “Two similarly aberrant Serengeti lionesses were outwardly female—they did not have manes, but were almost male-sized, and they challenged and fought unfamiliar males for territories as though they were males!”

More lion news:

Unusual” Pictures: Lions vs. Hippo

Female Lions Prefer Dark-Maned Males, Study Finds

Man-Eating Lions Not Aberrant, Experts Say

Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.
  • BILLOO

    More than 30 years, I watch wild life, this is astonishing
    are they truly female, or like human they are eunich

    Thanks for this wonderful pictures

  • ompie

    Fascinating

  • jam

    yet everyone is so uncomfortable rather than fasinated when things like this happen to humans — cases of intersex and transexual people.

  • JDE

    “Alternatively and perhaps more likely, the problem may have occurred during gestation if the fetus was exposed to increased levels of androgens— male hormones such as testosterone”

    No, no! It’s a lifestyle choice. They need a Bible-based rehab program!

  • Sam

    This isn’t a female for crying out loud, “written by a female”, this is one of those dismorphic cases, it is not male nor full female.., it’s sort of hermaphrodite or it may have the equivalent of XXY or XX with genetic precursors of male genitalia or androgen producing elements

  • Eric Simpson

    Could this be a result of a decreasing gene pool? Seems to me that with decreasing populations and habitat, that breeding with close relatives would tend to amplify incidences of recessive genes being expressed, and, in the case of these masculinized female lions, an increase in aberrant sperm or androgen production.

  • Chieh Chen

    It is androgens (male hormones) during *puberty* that is responsible for the the changes that leads to an adult male lion to look like one. Therefore, it is unlikely that perinatal (around birth) androgens *alone* can be responsible for this phenomenon mentioned. These lionesses most likely have elevated androgens throughout life capable of altering physical characteristics during puberty. A case very similar to this is that of the spotted hyenas. Female spotted hyenas evolved to have very high levels of androgens throughout life and have the physical appearance of males. Androgen increases aggression in these female hyenas, which is advantageous for survival, but the byproduct of a long penis-like urogenital canal is not ideal for parturition. The fact that high levels of androgens in these hyenas has been perpetuated through several generations despite the physical downfalls tells us that the positives outweigh the negatives. Going back to the lionesses, since several individuals have been seen with these masculine characteristics, it is highly probable that this is also a heritable trait that is adaptive and brings advantages worth passing on to next generations. The questions now is whether the mane is the main factor that brings advantages to the individual (if so, how?) or the byproduct of another more advantageous characteristic.

  • Tamaresque

    Or, alternatively (and Sam comes close to the mark here), there may have been some androgen-insensitivity during gestation in male fetuses which then failed to develop as male. They then appear as female externally, but still have some male characteristics. This would, as Sam notes above, make the creature intersex.

  • Deri

    God hates lady lions with manes!

  • DD

    I’d imagine she’d only be perceived as male from afar. Don’t animals tell gender from smell, as well?

  • YenYen

    I dont really care how it happened at all, All i know is it is very cool and amazing! Wildlife is so…..Unique.

  • Christine Dell’Amore

    @DD: Here is an answer to your question from Luke Hunter:

    “Yes, they do. Smell is more useful to her pride mates than strange lions, for whom vision would be more important. Lions can doubtless recognize individuals from their smells, and this lioness’ smell is probably unusual- to her pride mates, perhaps she is just an odd-smelling female but it clearly doesn’t affect the fact that she is accepted.”

  • Angella-Dee

    ““Alternatively and perhaps more likely, the problem may have occurred during gestation if the fetus was exposed to increased levels of androgens etc…
    This is an accepted reason why human transsexuals exist too!

  • partyhardy01

    So much intelligence….we think….but u r missing some major points.

    A. The shot is photoshop
    B. The reference to instinct has not been made.
    C. You are all idiots.

  • rachel

    Sam, it has a VAGINA therefore it is female.

  • ca

    awesome!! 🙂

  • mcflurry

    partyhardy01- u the idiot here, who cares if its photo shopped 1st of all, 2nd, this is something eunich which u dont see everyday, go back to Canada where u belong.

  • Derk

    I think this is a case of freemartinism (Lillie,1917). More clues may revealed it self if one looked at her internal genital tracts.

  • Jane Skeety Mcphee

    what was wrong with that semen

  • binyam gebremichael

    May be the principle of gender equality is also started in lions

  • jkscoot

    this is National Geographic, not the Enquirer! Do you REALLY think National Geographic would allow a photoshopped photo into its magazine? They’re pretty credible and I’m sure they research their articles…

  • Charmane

    These are amazing photos, Over many, many years lionesses with manes and males without manes have been reported and lots of photos have been published – long before photoshop, I have also taken photos of a male without a mane in the Kruger National Park, approx 12 years ago, that photo is on my web site http://www.pantheraleo.co.za under the “mane” page. Over the years amazing photos were published in a magazine called “African Environment & Wildlife” (Not sure of the year and volume but I do have it somewhere should you need more info and if you can get your hands on a copy) Most were published during the 1990’s. I think they were taken in Kenya somewhere and if I recall there were two or three females, from the same pride, sporting the manes. Just one of those amazing things that happen in the wild. The male in my photo was taking a rest from his mating duties. He was also one of the largest, in height, males that ever stood next to my vehicle.

  • dukemakaveli

    That make me wonder how the lion going make sex with this unusual maned lionesses, the whole world will think that lions turn to a gays.

  • Animal Safaris

    Its amazing to see such good quality picture depicting such profound research. Congratulations for all the people who have made this happen and to bring such amazing wonderful king of the jungle picture into the limelight. People who love animal safaris and especially The Big Five and the African Savannah Cats always prefer to go to East Africa for such animal safaris but for now I am sure people will also love to visit Botswana‘s Okavango Delta to see these beautiful dangerous lions which can only bee seen in Botswana. If the Man Eaters of Tsavo made news.

    I guess the Okavango lions are just a step away. They are part of us as we are part of them.

    Lets love all to save all

  • JJG

    Does that also mean there are male lions without manes?

  • jil

    Chieh Chen – your logic sucks. Prenatal hormonal disruption is the cause.

    Sam – if everything inside is female. But the outside looks like a guy. It’s a bio female.
    What are you the female ambassador? Does this lion not fit your female look?

  • Mobeen

    This female lioness can easily be a victim of any other dominant male lion just because of mane. Male lion may be not accept her.

  • Marushka France

    Global spread of radioactive contamination is known to cause and increase such abnormalities: “Overtly healthy newborns
    in Gomel and Mogilev provinces had elevated
    cortisol levels where contamination was
    less than 15 Ci/km2 and decreased levels in
    heavily contaminated areas (Danil’chik et al.,
    1996). The number of children with impaired
    hormone secretion (cortisol, thyroxin, and progesterone)
    was significantly higher in heavily
    contaminated territories (Sharapov, 2001).
    3. Children from heavily contaminated territories
    had lower levels of testosterone, a hormone
    associated with physical development,
    with low levels linked to impaired reproductive
    function (Lyalykov et al., 1993).
    4. Many girls of pubertal age, 13 to 14
    years, from the contaminated territories with
    autoimmune thyroiditis had accelerated sexual
    development with significantly increased
    blood serum concentrations of gonadotropic
    hormones in the lutein phase of their menstrual
    cycles (Leonova, 2001).”
    about a minute ago · Like

    “Other scientists have come up againstmore serious
    pathologies. As a rule, at the age of 12–13 years
    girls begin to menstruate. Not one of the 300 girls
    in the study had done so. Ultrasound examinations
    showed that their uteruses and ovaries were
    underdeveloped . . . “Our results could be wildly
    accidental, Dr. Vvedensky said, but among these
    300 girls there was one who had no internal reproductive
    organs at all. . . . While we have no right to
    draw any scientific conclusions—if we had found
    at least three out of 10,000 girls with the same
    developmental anomaly, then it would be possible
    to speak about a terrible physiological catastrophe.”
    However, we doctors do not have money for
    more detailed and extensive studies. Vvedensky’s
    group has come to the conclusion that the reason
    for the changes is hormonal imbalance. Under the
    influence of irradiation a large amount of testosterone
    develops in the female organism. Testosterone
    is a male hormone that is normally present
    only in very small quantities in females, but when a
    woman has too much of it she can lose her female
    characteristics. . ..” (Ulevich, 2000)

    “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment”
    Alexey Yablokov, Vasily Nesterenko and Alexey Nesterenko
    Contributing Editor, Janette Sherman
    NY Academy of Sciences, Volume 1181, 2009.
    5,000 Slavic language studies reviews, over 1,400 cited.
    http://www.strahlentelex.de/Yablokov%20Chernobyl%20book.pdf

  • ommu3az

    why don’t you make an Arabic version Or put Arabic language on your page & magazine you are very interesting

  • solarwindspirit

    Who says its androgens that play such a important role in a mane?. . .and why is the female cannot have a mane. . .anyway I hope she has a bunch of cubs some just like her to prove you guys wrong. Why in nature the female has to be the plain jane. . .who says? Scoot over let me prove you wrong. . .and wrong again. A female has both. . .androgens estrogen and progesterone. .she gave it to you males. . .she made you.

  • peggy Richter

    I would think that some of the same chromosomal abnormality and hormonal faults causing mixed or “false” secondary sex characteristics found in people and dogs would occur in lions. Along with “maned females” there are maneless males among lions. The question is if there is any serious advantage to the pride or half sibling survival of such animals or if it is simply an occasional “oddity” like an albino whale.

  • salmotunist

    I won’t judge
    an animal’s lifestyle choice, but I believe pollution may have something to do with this.

  • Sara

    I wonder if this is an issue of increased exposure to hormones in the environment perhaps in their drinking water specifically as hormones are often not successfully filtered out in water treatment processes before going back out into the environment. I also wonder if this is having any adverse effects not described in this article.

  • Aaron

    A brilliant example of the fact that nature is, by… er…nature meant to be diverse and that creation is ongoing. To respond to this with anything other than admiring awe and fascination is to crush the world into our own self-centered tininess. From a creationist point of view, if male and female were meant to be distinct and never blurred existences, then why would all fetuses begin as sex-neutral with such a fragile potentiality for either sex? We should never judge nature, but be joyfully humbled by how little we understand God’s way.

  • britt

    Now I understand I am a layman in biology, but why would she be infertile? there are bearded ladies with babies, would this not be similar to that?

  • anthea

    Somewhere amongst my hundreds of photos I have a picture of a lioness with mane I took in 1994. She was saved from euthansia at an overseas zoo and brought back to Africa.

  • horacio altuna

    We stumbled over here coming from a different site and thought I might as well check things out. I like what I see so now i am following you. Look forward to going over your web page again.

  • wendy taumata

    The lion is intersex you dont need to explaine it,just as there are intersex people ,animals and plantlife its just a common natural variation of biology.very common but not commonly known.

  • northierthanthou

    Heh, …let the right wing echo chamber winge about this liberal development!

  • Catherine

    Nat Geo – If you are going to report on this, please report on what is known, not all these “Probably,” “More likely,” and “would likely be” statements. I see nothing of fact in this article beyond a female lion has a mane. Beyond that, we know nothing and nobody’s taken the time to take samples, run tests, or do genetic comparisons. Right?

    Masquerading theories as science is not good reporting. And unworthy of Nat Geo, for which I usually have great respect.

  • Anthony Martini

    There is a maned African lioness in the Knoxville Zoo, always mistaken for a male. I don’t know what their source is, but they compare it to hormone changes from aging “just like women over 50″…which always goes over well with the women in the crowd.

  • Dr Adrian Tordiffe

    I have investigated a case like this at the National Zoo here in South Africa (see http://www.nzg.ac.za/newsletter/issues/29/06.php). Our lioness is not a typical hermaphrodite or intersex as she has normal XX chromosomes and almost normal female reproductive organs (except for her ovaries that contained cells typically seen in testes, and no typical ovarian cells). I am currently looking for more cases like this to add to a case series before publishing the results of our findings.

  • Gwenie Mugliston

    There are at least 5 varieties of different physical sexual expressions in humans. Every species seems to have chimeras. Genes and chromosomes are “mobile”. Social pressures influence numbers of male or females within flocks or groups. I am surprised there aren’t more differences, that is, obvious visual differences within any group of any “animal” population and that word includes anything living. I can’t imagine how many non-visual differences there might be. Isn’t it wonderful?

  • Joyce

    It astonishes me that people do not realize that animals, plants, people, all have thriving populations of the less than dead center average for their species. Humans have hermaphrodites; it’s just often “corrected” by best guess at birth and often the child doesn’t even know unless come puberty they find out the doctor guessed wrong. It’s one of those never discussed topics. Reproduction is complicated! The famous Tsavo Lions “Ghost and Darkness” were maneless. There are many other groups of maneless male lions; where the mane seemed to be bred out because of environmental issues. There are bearded women, and certainly are bearded, so to speak, lionesses. There are species which are all female until a male in the population is needed and vice versa. Why humans get so excited over gay, trans, whatever is primarily because they are so ignorant, often willfully so, of actual science and what truly exists in the world. If they’d look, they’d find their God, by whatever name, is far more awesome than they know. The possibilities are endless.

  • Fábio Alves

    I do not agree with the theory of exposure of female fetuses at high levels of testosterone. The mane is a characteristic that develops at puberty of male lions. Even if the female has been exposed to high testosterone levels in the womb before birth, this would only grow two years later and having a male testosterone production. Male lion pups are not born with mane !!! Testosterone levels also need to be high in adulthood these lionesses for the mane is due to excess testosterone. The production of testosterone must be endogenous to make it happen and not exogenous, that is, has to come from testicles or adrenal hyperactive. For me, the mane is in these females due to a mutation of the gene responsible for its growth.

    If the mane was due to an excess of testosterone in the female, she might be sterile and would have a wider skull like a male. Apparently, the skull structure is feminine, suggesting normal estrogen and testosterone levels for a female lion. My theory is that the mane grew due to a genetic mutation that became independent of male testosterone levels in the blood.

    In males is the opposite pattern, normally the lack of mane is due to an insufficiency of testosterone. One theory is that male lions of Tsavo has no mane to possess above average levels of testosterone, causing it to fall. I do not agree. Lion’s mane is more like the man beard than with the head human hair. The more testosterone and DHT, bulkier and dark should be the lion’s mane and not vice versa. I believe that in the case of male tsavo lions, lack mane is due to a mutation contrary, with the receptors of skin cells that do grow become insensitive to testosterone. Tsavo male lions has testosterone levels above normal. I think the lack of mane them is due to a mutation in the androgen receptors on cells that supposedly make grow male hair, and these failed to respond to testosterone and not a similar phenomenon to the baldness of men and some other primates. In the case of humans, men with little beard does not necessarily have low testosterone levels, although there is a relationship.

  • Fábio Alves

    I do not agree with the theory of exposure of female fetuses at high levels of testosterone. The mane is a characteristic that develops at puberty of male lions. Even if the female has been exposed to high testosterone levels in the womb before birth, this would only grow two years later and having a male testosterone production. Male lion pups are not born with mane !!! Testosterone levels also need to be high in adulthood these lionesses for the mane is due to excess testosterone. The production of testosterone must be endogenous to make it happen and not exogenous, that is, has to come from testicles or adrenal hyperactive. For me, the mane is in these females due to a mutation of the gene responsible for its growth.

    If the mane was due to an excess of testosterone in the female, she might be sterile and would have a wider skull like a male. Apparently, the skull structure is feminine, suggesting normal estrogen and testosterone levels for a female lion. My theory is that the mane grew due to a genetic mutation that became independent of male testosterone levels in the blood.

    In males is the opposite pattern, normally the lack of mane is due to an insufficiency of testosterone. One theory is that male lions of Tsavo has no mane to possess above average levels of testosterone, causing it to fall. I do not agree. Lion’s mane is more like the man beard than with the head human hair. The more testosterone and DHT, bulkier and dark should be the lion’s mane and not vice versa. I believe that in the case of male tsavo lions, lack mane is due to a mutation contrary, with the receptors of skin cells that do grow become insensitive to testosterone. Tsavo male lions has testosterone levels above normal. I think the lack of mane them is due to a mutation in the androgen receptors on cells that supposedly make grow male hair, and these failed to respond to testosterone and not a similar phenomenon to the baldness of men and some other primates. In the case of humans, men with little beard does not necessarily have low testosterone levels, although there is a relationship.

  • Fábio Alves

    My comment was deleted? I do not see.

  • Fábio Alves

    There have been measurements of testosterone these lionesses ? If they have done, the levels are male?

  • derrick nabaala

    on the day of 7.05/2015
    on a game drive we saw a young female, who is developing a mane which brought a lot of confusion, until we looked at the sex to confirm that she was a female.

  • I J Larivers

    Has it been definitely established that the characteristic results from disrupted embryos, and the animals are infertile? The repetitiveness of the character suggests that it could be a mutated allele as with the white lions?

  • K.Anderson

    I’ve seen territorial females. Are the maned females more vicious when fighting males trying to take over the pride? Do they tend to weigh less or more than a male? Has this trait been notice in the Cape lions? Again is there a weight or size difference between the sexes?

  • nancy izabella lopez

    i do not agree with this site because i searched for something diffrent and this came up

  • Mrs B

    Masculine features of the foetus in utero has been known to be caused in humans by the interference by humans as in cases of fertility clinics and treatment for threatened miscarriage .As feminization of the male in utero was caused by the drug stilboestrol as masculinisation of the female in utero Also stilboestrol is implicated as the cause of breast cancer a found among dogs in published veterinary surgery books. Also stress may play a major part and create as hormone secreting tumours as in Cushings and Addison’s disease which may produce these alternative male attributes . Also the environment of poisoned games consumed by females may have upset the hormones when the chemicals are used to eradicate certain species without thought that other animals are part of the ecosystem as mentioned by George Adamson in his autobiography My Pride and Joy .

  • tnoll

    Commenter below:
    salmotunist, signal mtn, tennessee, November 7, 2012, 12:55 pm – “I won’t judge
    an animal’s lifestyle choice, but I believe pollution may have something to do with this.”

    So, now even wild animals are making a “lifestyle choice” when they behave differently than their physical attributes normally dictate? Wild animals don’t make a choice to be different, as any differences will often cause others of their species (even their own mothers) to kill them. You can be certain, no wild animal would ever CHOOSE to be different. Good gracious – really? And if wild animals, that typically abhor anything different in their species and will kill it, can accept an one of their own who’s body is sexually confused, why can humans not accept these differences?

  • Erin

    In cows, if a female calf develops with a male calf in a certain type of pregnancy, she will be sterile and show male secondary sexual characteristics. (A “freemartin”.) I imagine something similar is at work here. And it has likely occurred for thousands of years, we just didn’t have scientists observing the lions as closely as they do these days to report on it.

  • Naveen Chilakapati

    Lovely

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