Seeing a male lion in the wild can be a truly awe-inspiring experience.
These noble animals have captured the imagination of humans for millennia. A lion’s sheer size and strength, its deep roar that carries for miles and its ferocious method of dealing with challengers all contribute to the title ‘the king of the jungle’; but one cannot ignore arguably the most iconic part feature on a male lion – the mane.
A lion’s mane is undoubtedly impressive but many people are unsure of its true function. There is a long-standing belief that the main purpose of a lion’s mane is to protect its head and neck from blows delivered by an opponent in a fight, however research has emerged suggesting otherwise.
Studies propose that the true reason for a male lion’s mane is to act as a sign of his condition, and that males with thicker, darker manes are more impressive to lionesses and more intimidating to rival males. This research affirms something I’ve always believed – a male lion’s mane makes him look pretty hardcore!
Ageing a male lion is considerably easier when compared to their female counterparts.
All the signs used to age a lioness still apply to males, with the mane now being added to the mix.
While there will be some variations according to regional and genetic factors, the general rule is that a lion’s mane will develop according to its age. A lion’s mane will appear after around a year – or even visible as fluff at a younger age – and by two years there will be a noticeable mohawk, as well as a fairly thick ‘neck-beard’. After his third year, a lion’s mane will have started to fill in the gaps between the neck and the head and there will be more mane development towards the shoulder. In addition, many male lions will be close to full size by three years although they won’t have developed their full body mass. This period of life is a particularly difficult period in a young male lion’s life, as they are usually kicked out of the pride by the age of two and a half and go on to begin a nomadic phase of life while they continue to grow and fight for survival.
Mane growth varies considerably during a male lion’s third and fourth years but generally by the beginning of his fifth year it will have filled out to the point where the mohawk has given way to a longer mop on top of the head, the neck-beard is long and thick and has joined up with the hair on the head, and the mane is growing down the back above the shoulders. A five year old lion’s mane is usually in excellent condition as well. By the time the male lion is six years old his mane is fully developed with both the bare patches on the shoulders and the forehead gap between the ears having been filled in. A male lion is considered to be in his ‘prime’ between the ages of six and eight and this is the time that his mane looks most impressive. Furthermore, a male in his prime will often have a darker mane compared to younger males who usually have a predominantly blonde mane. Male lions in their prime rely on their thick, dark manes to assist them in challenging for and defending territory. In most cases, male lions that have survived to make it to their prime will be dominant over a pride of lionesses and will have fathered cubs.
After the age of eight the mane of a male lion will start to deteriorate. The once majestic mane will start to show signs of thinning in areas, especially during periods of stress, and may appear fuzzy or frayed. Older male lions often have a ‘slack-jawed’ facial expression and will show the scars they have collected over the years. Some male lions will remain dominant over their prides into their old age but once they are ousted by younger male lions they do not typically survive for longer than two years.
The life of a male lion is one fraught with danger, and the trials of life ensure that only the strongest lions survive. Big male lions that are able to make it to the point where their manes look tatty and their faces are scarred are true champions in the daily battle for survival in the African bush. These old lions have likely left a legacy behind, and with luck their bloodline will live on through their offspring.
Hopefully this series has been helpful in providing ways to age lions and that you will be able to put these to the test and track the progress of your favourite lions here at Londolozi.