Everyone knows that the way to tell male and female adult lions apart is the mane, right? Turns out that’s not always true.
Africa Geographic, one of my favorite resources on everything to do with African wildlife, natural history and culture, recently posted two stories about lions who dare to be different—and make it difficult to know who we’re looking at.
Mmamoriri, the Maned Lioness
On Chief’s Island, in the Okavango Delta (Botswana), maned females exist in two different prides. Mmamoriri, shown here sporting her two-toned mane, is from the northern pride.
“While this is not the norm, there has been an increase in reported incidences of these unusual felines on and around [the island] over the past few years,” notes Robynne Kotze, author of “Unravelling the mystery of Mmamoriri, the maned lioness.”
Kotze describes research by Simon Dures into the genetic diversity of lion populations in northern Botswana. They’re particularly interested, of course, in Mmamoriri. According to initial results, she is genetically a female; in other words, it’s most likely that her condition developed in the womb.
Mmamoriri isn’t as large as a male lion and doesn’t have the much broader/larger face that males have, but she sure does look more like a male than female on first glance.
Why do we find maned females in this area? Prides in the Okavango Delta are more isolated than other prides, which can lead to less genetic diversity. That, in turn, may lead to more lions with traits like Mmamoriri’s over time.
Kotze doesn’t believe that the lions of the Okavango Delta are in danger due to this right now, but “it is a reminder that on a larger scale, we need to ensure genetic flow between increasingly isolated populations of species such as the lion.”
Maneless Male in South Luangwa
The opposite situation—males who lack a mane—isn’t completely unheard of, either. Another Africa Geographic article, “The maneless male lion of South Luangwa,” by Shenton Safaris, highlights a 30-month-old male from the Mwanba Kaingo pride in South Luangwa National Park (Zambia).
This guy has two brothers from the same litter, both of whom are sprouting their manes.
And Zambia’s not the only place a maneless lion has been spotted: The authors note that they are fairly common in the Selous Game Reserve (Tanzania).
Male lions typically start to show a mane at about one year; at about two or 2.5 years, they have to leave the pride. (A pride centers around a group of females, and any male who has been able to take it over from other males.) The outcast young males then form male coalitions of, say, three or four males.
What It Means
Are these lions just freaks of nature? Obviously not, as there are pockets where these genetic “oddities” exist.
Does this matter at all for the individual lions? It seems that not having a mane, for a male, is a bigger deal than having a mane is for a female.
As you can see in the photo here, Mmamoriri hangs out with the girls happily.
But for a male with no mane, life might be a bit tougher. Even though the authors note that the maneless lions in the Selous often dominate the males in their region, it seems that it would be harder for a male to establish dominance. For example, with no protection around your neck, you don’t have much of a chance in a fight. And apparently females are known to prefer more “hirsute” fellows.
Check out both of these articles for more details.