There is only one species of lion: Panthera leo. The Asiatic lion is just one of many subspecies, all of which have been geographically isolated from one another for thousands of years. Though they all possess slightly different physical and even behavioral traits, they are still capable of interbreeding and producing viable offspring. The following is a list of all the known lion subspecies, both living and extinct.
Angola Lion (P.l. bleyenberghi) (Zimbabwe, Angola and Zaire)
Asiatic Lion (P.l. persica) (Gir Forest Sanctuary in Northwest India)
Barbary or Atlas Lion (P.l. leo) (North Africa; extinct in 1920 but may exist in captivity)
Cape Lion (P.l. melanochaitus) (South Africa's Cape Province; extinct in 1850 but may exist in captivity)
Masai Lion (P.l. massaicus) (Eastern Africa, notably Kenya and Tanzania)
Senegalese Lion (P.l. senegalensis) (Western Africa)
Transvaal or South African Lion (P.l. kruegri) (Botswana, Nambia and South Africa)
Asiatic and African lions separated as recently as 100,000 years ago, and are thus very close in genetic make-up. In fact, the differences between the two are less than those found between different human racial groups. However, the differences are significant enough that one can tell the difference between an Asiatic and an African lion if they know what to look for.
Asiatic lions tend to be smaller than their African cousins. Adult males typically weigh between 350 and 420 pounds, while adult females weigh between 240 and 365 pounds. The largest Asiatic lion on record measured 9½ feet from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail.
African lions are larger than Asiatic lions. Adult males average between 330 and 500 pounds in weight, with most weighing around 410 pounds. The largest African lion on record weighed over 800 pounds. Females typically weigh the same as their Asiatic cousins. The longest African lion measured almost 11 feet from nose to tail tip.
Compared to the African lion, the male Asiatic lion has a relatively short, sparse mane. As a result, the male Asiatic lion's ears tend to remain visible at all times. In addition to being less well-developed, the mane is generally darker than that of African lions.
Male African lions tend to have longer and fuller manes than their Asiatic cousins. A lion's mane is a signal of male condition. It allows other lions to assess the male's overall strength and fitness. A male with a long, dark mane is more intimidating to his rivals and more attractive to the opposite sex.
Asiatic lions have thicker elbow tufts and a longer tail tuft than African lions. The tail tuft covers a short spine, the function of which is unknown.
African lions have relatively sparse elbow tufts and a shorter tail tuft than Asiatic lions
Other than the male's sparse mane, the most distinguishing characteristic of the Asiatic lion is a longitudinal fold of skin that runs along the belly. This trait is found in all Asiatic lions.
One can quickly tell an Asiatic from an African lion by looking at its belly. Almost all African lions lack the longitudinal fold of skin that runs along the belly of Asiatic lions.
If you're ever tasked with finding out whether a lion is Asiatic or African based on its skull alone, here's a tip. Around 50 percent of Asiatic lions have what are called bifurcated infraorbital foramina. These are small holes in the skull that allow nerves and blood vessels to pass to the eye. If a lion's skull has two of these, it's an Asiatic lion.
For whatever reason, African lions only have one infraorbital foramen. Their eyesight is just as strong as the Asiatic lion's, so there's no particular benefit to having two infraorbital foramina versus just one.
Just like African lions, Asiatic lions are highly sociable and live in social units called prides. However, Asiatic prides tend to be smaller than their African counterparts. The largest recorded Asiatic pride included five adult females, but most just have two adult females. This may be because the animals they prey on are relatively small, or because their range in the Gir Forest is so confined. (It should be noted that further field studies may show that what were thought to be small prides are actually just small foraging groups from larger prides.)
Like Asiatic lions, African lions live in social units called prides. This behavior is unique among cats, as all other feline species are solitary. In Africa, these prides include an average of four to six females, their cubs and one to four male lions. The faster, more agile females do the hunting while the larger male lions patrol and defend the pride's territory. The females in a pride usually give birth at the same time and raise their cubs together in a crèche, or nursery.
Unlike African lions, male Asiatic lions do not live in prides. In fact, they tend to only associate with female lions when mating or at large kills. Otherwise, they live alone or in partnership with another male lion. These partnerships allow male Asiatic lions to control larger territories and more easily scare off rival males.
In Africa, every lion pride has a resident male or group of males, which defend their prides vigorously against other males. Pride takeovers occur every two years, during which the suckling cubs of the defeated males are killed. This ensures that the new male will pass along his genes.
The prey animals in the Gir Forest are generally smaller than those in Africa, so hunting groups tend to be smaller as well. This likely explains why pride size is so small. The most commonly taken prey species in the Gir Forest is the chital deer, which weighs only around 110 pounds. These account for around 45 percent of known kills.
The prey aniamls of the African savanna tend to be larger than those in the Gir Forest of Northwest India. African lions will frequently tackle prey weighing as much as 600 to 800 pounds, such as wildebeest and zebra, and will occasionally take down African buffalo, which weigh between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds. This requires cooperative hunting techniques, which may explain why African lions live in larger prides.