A lion’s claws must be some of the most fearsome weaponry in nature. Not only are they razor sharp and as strong as carbon fibre, but there are 18 of them and they are attached to over 140kg of pure muscle and speed (assuming we’re dealing with an adult lion). Used for gripping prey, fighting and occasionally climbing, they are formidable, and it is no wonder that lions in battle will attempt to attack the rear of their opponent, steering clear of the far more dangerous front end where the opposing claws are most effective and the teeth can also enter the fray.

I think as humans we have very little appreciation for just how lethal a lion’s claws are, as they spend most of their time sheathed and invisible, and it is fortunately only the prey of these big cats – and each other on occasion – that bear the brunt of the claws’ true ferocity.

Knowledge is never a bad thing to have, so we thought we’d go through the ins and outs of a lions claw structure, and explain just how the claws are used.

A Mhangeni lioness flexes her claws on a russet bushwillow tree. Behaviour like this helps to keep tendons flexible, and scratching on bark aids in keeping the claws sharp. As lions possess interdigital glands, they are also transmitting a scent when flexing their toes, which aids in territorial marking and other types of olfactory messaging.

One of the first mistakes people make is to refer to the claws of a lion as retractible. This is a misnomer, as it implies that the claws’ resting position is out, and the lion has the ability to withdraw them, when in fact it is the opposite; the resting position is in, with the ability to flex them out. Should the claws be out permanently, their rounded shape and keen edge would be blunted, and their effectiveness would be greatly reduced. One only has to look at the claws of any type of dog to see that this is so.

Not only do the claws stay sharp by being sheathed, but the absence of their hard tips being on the outside means the lion is able to stalk more quietly, creeping in on soft, silent pads.

The claws are attached to what are known as the distal phalanges, effectively the equivalent of the outer bones in our fingers and toes. Imagine if our fingernails were attached tightly to the bone, and were a lot harder and sharper, and you’ll get the idea. Claws are basically modified fingernails. Or the other way around, depending on which way you look at it. Whatever the case, the resting position in a lion’s claw mechanism involves that distal phalanx (singular of phalange) folded back against the middle phalanx:

Diagram showing the relaxed state of a lion’s claw (top) and the extended state (bottom). Image courtesy Safariguide-online.com.

The base of the phalanx on which the claw is found has a tendon attached to it, which is in turn attached to muscles further back in the foot. When these muscles are contracted (e.g. at the moment a lion grabs for its prey) the base of the phalanx is pulled back, rotating it and extending the claw attached to the other end. When that muscle is relaxed, an elastic ligament attached to the top end of the phalanx pulls the claw back up into its sheath.

Dewclaws are a separate thing altogether, and are located on the front legs only, on the inside of the legs and slightly above the paw, almost equivalent to a thumb. These are used almost exclusively for hooking onto prey during the chase or maintaining a grip once the prey has been brought down.

Take a look at the following photos to get an idea of the usefulness of a lion’s claws:

Three members of the Sparta pride scratch on the same leadwood tree. When one lion scratches on a particular post or trunk, it will often follow that another individual will do the same in the same spot.

The Sparta pride again, subduing a buffalo cow. The claws of almost all the lions engaged here can be seen in their flexed positions, enabling them to keep a much better grip on the buffalo’s skin.

A young male from the pride in the same sighting, reaching out to grab the hock of the cow. Again, the claws come into their own here, their hooks gripping into the buffalo’s skin and allowing this male to pull her leg out, tripping her up.

One of the Tsalala lionesses cleans blood off her paw. Her dewclaw is clearly visible in this picture. Photograph by Talley Smith

I have personally felt a lion’s claws, and believe me, despite being made of keratin – the same substance that our fingernails are made up of – they are on a completely different level of hardness; breaking a nail isn’t easy for a lion! Imagine those claws being used to help pull a 200kg frame up into a tree and you can begin to appreciate just how strong they need to be.

Adamantium is a fictional alloy from the X-Men series that was used to construct the daggers built into the character Wolverine’s skeleton. I’m sure many of us have seen the movies or remember the cartoon, but looking at it now, I can’t help but chuckle at the fact that this science-fiction character is revered and feared for his incredible weaponry of six daggers attached to his body, when Mother Nature has, of her own accord, already granted lions with three times that number! Slightly amusing, that.

 

Filed under Lions Wildlife

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

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10 Comments

on The Claws of a Lion

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Darlene Knott
Guest

How very interesting! Thank you for sharing this information, James.

Lea
Guest

Thanks James, amazing things you learn. Would not wish to be on the receiving end of those claws.

Wendy Hawkins
Guest

That is very interesting James, we learn something new every day on these wonderful blogs 🙂 Thank you

Jennifer Ellen Suzuki
Guest

Hi, my name is Jenni and I really enjoy soaking up the info and facts about the different species at and around Londolozi🙏 Thankyou! This thought is not so much about claws, however, it’s more of an observation. I’ve always noticed a behavior of big cats and that is, when prey are brought down there is always one lion or other species that clamps down on the airway of the prey to accelerate the death process. This action has always amazed me! What comes to mind is intelligence! And in a way it seems humane. I know this may sound silly but over and over I’ve witnessed this behavior and although these cats are savage in their own ways, this suffocation ends the life quickly in my mind so that the feast can begin. Wonders in nature never cease to amaze me! Thankyou so much for your gifts you bring to ‘us’. You bring the bush to us! #onlyinafrica❤️

sandra harmon
Guest

Very informative!–the diagram really helps the explanation!

Lawrence Ndaka
Guest

Your material about wild nature is more educative than any i came through.

Vikram Ghanekar
Guest

Thank you for your thoroughly informative article. I loved reading it especially the end. Although I have never visited Londolozi (Less likely that I ever will, considering the $$$), I thoroughly enjoy reading the blog, especially articles written by you and Amy. Cheers, Vikram

Kk
Guest

How many adults and cubs are there in the Sparta Pride now?

Ann Seagle
Guest

Wonderful read. I learned so much. Thank u.

Callum Evans

Hollywood basically gets all of its ideas from nature!! Very interesting post, always love reading about lions!

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