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.
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!”
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