Interesting blog Nick. I am definitely going to try and age the next lion I see.
In my previous blog about “How Old is That Lion?” I focused on a few different ways to estimate the age of cubs in particular.
Now it is time to move onto arguably the most difficult kind of lion to age – a lioness.
The job of distinguishing one lioness from another in the field can be a tricky job at the best of times and attempting to figure out their age is just as tough. The most reliable way to age one is to study photographs of them, but it is also possible to do in real time by looking at a few key features and using them in combination to come to a final conclusion.
The first step in ageing a lioness is to separate adult from sub-adult.
A lion is no longer considered a cub when it is older than two years and is then referred to as a sub-adult. A two year old lioness is about two-thirds the size of an adult and a lioness usually appears fully developed after three years or so. Other than size, another reliable way to tell a sub-adult female from an adult lioness is to observe the presence of cubs (or suckle marks); as a lioness with cubs will almost always be older than three and a half years old.
Once it has been confirmed that a particular lioness is indeed an adult, the ageing process turns to the nitty-gritty details to refine the estimate. As mentioned in the previous post there are a few key features to look for that can help with determining the age of any lion, namely; nose pigmentation, tooth quality and facial markings. There is no particular order in which to check these features and often there isn’t any need to check all of them.
The first feature I usually at is the nose pigmentation. The theory surrounding nose pigmentation is that a lion’s nose will acquire more freckles as it ages. Studies conducted on lions in the Serengeti concluded that there is a strong link between the age of a lion and the amount of pigmentation there. Before a lion reaches roughly three years of age, its nose will usually be a uniform grey or pink colour. After three years the lion’s nose will gradually develop more and more blemishes on it until its nose is more or less covered by around eight years of age.
The next feature to consider is the markings on her face. It almost goes without saying that years of hunting and scrapping with other lions is bound to leave a lioness with a few scars there. Facial scars are usually decent indicators of age but are not fully reliable. Most of the time older lionesses will have more scars on their faces than younger ones, but this is not always the case and sometimes younger females have just been on the receiving end a bit more.
It is therefore wise to not only use the number of scars on a lioness’ age when ageing her.
The last feature to contemplate is usually the most difficult to see – the lion’s teeth.
As lions get older their teeth show more wear and tear from all their use over the years. Whether it is biting through the bones of an antelope or blows from the hooves of fleeing prey, lion’s teeth take a battering which is why they are a good indicator of age. A three year old lion’s teeth will likely be white, sharp and show few signs of wear, but as the lion approaches the age of five or six the canines will have turned yellow and some of the teeth will be chipped and slightly worn down. By the age of seven or eight and upwards, all the teeth will have yellowed and many will be worn down and chipped and some may even be missing. As is the case with facial markings, analysing the teeth alone isn’t always reliable because some lion’s teeth will age differently for a number of different reasons.
Ageing lionesses can be tough, but by using the tools above in conjunction with one another, hopefully you will be able to get a fairly good idea of how old a particular lion might be.
Next time you happen to see a lioness (or even a picture of one) try to figure out her age and enjoy looking at those more intricate details a little more closely.
Hi Kara, many of the same principles go for leopards too; such as the scarring and teeth. As for the coat, it definitely seems to fade with age but it is difficult to use that as a reliable way to guess the leopard’s age.