Long-time Londolozi guest and friend Michael Klauber recently posted a question asking about the identification of individual lions; whether there is a system or not, and if so, does it differ from that used in the differentiation between individual leopards?

Those who have visited our leopard website and who follow this blog regularly will know how we try to keep an accurate record of which leopards are which, where they are moving, what kills they are making etc. With lions it’s the same thing, but slightly more complicated. Yes we try to differentiate between individuals, but given that they are social animals, with the success of the pride ultimately contributing the most to an individual’s longevity, we tend to focus our interest on the group as a whole rather than on the individuals therein.

Identifying males is usually fairly easy. Big manes of differing colours are often the first thing we go on. Take the Majingilane below:

Majingilane 1

(l to r) Scar-Nose male, Dark-maned male, Hip-scar male, male with the missing canine.

Each of the four males had/have their own unique characteristic(s) which differentiated him from the other three. I’m not going into the details, as they should be evident from the names in the caption. Suffice it to say that there was never any real trouble in telling them apart.

The Birmingham males, relatively new onto Londolozi, resemble each other a bit closer in appearance, although I suppose we haven’t been seeing them together enough to really be able to them apart that easily yet.

It’s the lionesses that give us the headaches, especially in the larger prides.

Sometimes it’s a no-brainer, as in the case of the Tsalala Pride. One had a tail, the other didn’t. If you got that wrong, you probably had to get yourself checked.

When you start getting four, five and six lionesses or more in a pride, with most of them looking pretty similar to each other, it can get quite confusing if you don’t have a strict identification system in place from the get go, and if you don’t slot each individual into that system early in her life.

Mhangeni Lionesses Jt

Four Ntsevu lionesses on the prowl. At first glance, lionesses within the same pride can all look very similar. If you look closely, however, there are fairly easy ways to tell them apart.

Cubs further confuse the issue. Keeping track of lineages only works if cubs continue to be identified as belonging to a certain female. This may sound elementary, but if there are two or three litters in a pride, before long it can really confusing knowing which cub belongs to which lioness. Feeding time doesn’t always help as cubs don’t necessarily have to suckle from their mothers. When the pride gets moving you will usually find cubs naturally migrating to their own mothers to get groomed, but this also isn’t set in stone.
Take the Mhangeni pride. I’ll be happy to admit that I don’t have a clue which of the current sub-adults belongs to which adult female.

Mhangeni Lionesses Cubs Jt

Good luck working out which cub belongs to which female. The Mhangeni pride with their first batch, circa 2013.

Lineages aside, telling one lioness from another isn’t actually that difficult. Their bodies tell stories of fights, incidents, run-ins with buffaloes, and a hundred and one other trials that have altered their appearance over the years. Tears in ears, gashes on legs, things like that all help differentiating them.

Facially, one can look for the same things that one does when identifying leopards.
Just above the top whisker line is a collection of spots in a unique pattern. This pattern tends to look a lot more scattered than a leopard’s but it is there nonetheless.

Spota

The spot patterns in the cheek are circled in the top and bottom photos. The middle photograph indicates they type of spots/blemishes to look for on the nose. These cheek and nose spots stay with the lion for life, so are a good way to tell them apart.

Using cuts and scars to identify individuals isn’t usually a good idea unless the scars are prominent and well-established. Lions have remarkable healing powers, and what can look like an appalling gash when first inflicted can be almost invisible in a few months time once a scar is formed and it’s hidden under thick fur.

There you have it. Lions can be told apart from one another, but I’d be lying if I said we currently have a comprehensive ID kit for the Londolozi lion population. It is in the pipeline though, so watch this space…

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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9 Comments

on How To Identify Lions

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Marinda Drake

Interesting facts. The spot patterns will probably be used once a data base is established. I agree that most lionesess look the same and even the cubs. It is the males that look different. Some with lighter mane than others. I remember the two Matimba’s. They were very different and easy to identify as is the Magingilane.

Michael & Terri Klauber

James, Thanks for the answer to our question and the interesting post! We are going to have to start “zooming in” to our lioness images to see if we can identify the ones we have seen regularly. Makes sense that they would have unique spot patterns or blemishes!

Darlene Knott

Very interesting. I have long known about the leopard identification system, but did not know Lions had a similar system. Tail missing, ear damaged, maned lioness, etc. were certainly good id’s, but you are right about the lionesses in particular being so very similar. I will leave the hard stuff to you guys and gals! 😀

Malavika Gupta

Thanks for the informative article. Identifying lions based on spots must be so much tougher than recognizing leopards. Especially as lions aren’t solitary, making it hard to focus on a individual, and their spots don’t seem as easily distinguishable as leopard spots.

James Tyrrell

Hi Malavika,

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you talking about focusing on an individual.
If there a few lions moving around, you tend not to get you binoculars out to look at spot patterns, as it invariably means you will miss out on something that one of the other ones is doing…

Rhonda Oberto

I volunteer at a big cat sanctuary & telling full grown male lions apart is so much easier than then telling females apart. Our cats have come from abuse situations, and just live out their lives peacefully with us. We had one grumpy male lion who was our “Head of the Complaint Department.” He loved to sneak up on guests & snarl & roar & scare them…we volunteers knew when he was going to do that & we loved it. Tal has since crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

Mj Bradley

What a great idea.. It sounds like a good project. Not sure many photos would make us online folks recognize the ladies.. But it should be fun to try. Thank you for the pointers!

Denise Vouri

Another interesting and informative article James. I have seen the differences between the male lions quite often, noticing their manes, tails and especially the battle scars They also seem to travel in pairs or solo- only once or twice have I seen more than four together, so identification is easier. Lionesses seem to travel in “herds” – cubs, sisters, aunts, cousins….. I witnessed the 16 strong Mhagene pride and I don’t know how any one of them could be easily identified, especially on the move. Keep at the study!!

Callum Evans

All of the typical methods to id lions are right there!! Can’t wait to see the id kit!!

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