Observing male lions in the wild is quite something. With their power, beauty and often majestic manes, one can quite easily see why they are referred to as the ‘King of the Jungle’.
Manes, however, are far more function than just fashion; communication, intimidation and protection are all part of a mane’s make-up.
First off – and fairly obviously – manes assist us when sexing adult lions. Fully grown males have manes (in most cases) and females do not.
That being said, there are cases of lionesses that have been seen sporting signs of a mane due to hormonal imbalances – one in particular in Botswana that became well known – and more common cases of males that lack manes. These are the exception rather than the rule.
Lions are the only cat species with such distinct sexual dimorphism.
As males age, manes grow and darken, which critically makes the male look more intimidating. This benefits a male’s territorial prospects by ensuring that the young males don’t confront him in an attempt to take over his or his coalition’s territory. However, it is important to remember that manes grow at different rates due to the genetic makeup of different lions, as well as other factors like nutritional intake and stress, so the bigger and darker manes don’t always mean that a male is the oldest. Ageing lions based purely on mane size and colour is certainly not an exact science.
Research has shown that the colour of the mane can affect mating behavior. Studies in the Serengeti have shown that females have a preference for darker maned males within a coalition. Darker mane colour has reportedly been linked with higher testosterone levels, which generally means increased aggression and therefore a greater likelihood of that male taking over territory. The Dark-maned Majingilane was almost always the first to mate with an oestrus female.
In my experience between the Londolozi prides and the Birmingham males, females in oestrus are quite promiscuous and will mate with whichever male is nearby, so there is not always a definitive answer. This may be due to the fact that there is less of a marked difference in mane colour between these males than there was between the Majingilane.
When male lions fight, they sometimes go at each other face to face, battering with ferocious blows, so it is likely the mane also serves a protective function, but to what extent it’s hard to say, and this is probably an indirect benefit. Most attacks on males by maruading coalitions involve the antagonists trying to attack their victims’ flank and rear (not his head and shoulders) as this is where he will have the least amount of defence.
Ultimately, the key function of a lion’s mane is an indicator of fitness. The combination of genetics, hunting prowess, aggression and simple ability to handle himself all play a part in determining just how a male’s mane will appear, and this acts as a sign to lionesses that tells of his potential to maintain a territory, sire cubs and then protect that area in which the lioness will raise those cubs.
Without their manes, male lions simply wouldn’t be as impressive. Would they still be called the King of Beasts?
Food for thought…