Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Lion


Large mammalian terrestrial herbivores, such as elephants, have dramatic effects on the ecosystems they inhabit and at high population densities their environmental impacts can be devastating. Pleistocene terrestrial ecosystems included a much greater diversity of megaherbivores (e.g., mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths) and thus a greater potential for widespread habitat degradation if population sizes were not limited. Nevertheless, based on modern observations, it is generally believed that populations of megaherbivores (>800 kg) are largely immune to the effects of predation and this perception has been extended into the Pleistocene. However, as shown here, the species richness of big carnivores was greater in the Pleistocene and many of them were significantly larger than their modern counterparts. Fossil evidence suggests that interspecific competition among carnivores was relatively intense and reveals that some individuals specialized in consuming megaherbivores. To estimate the potential impact of Pleistocene large carnivores, we use both historic and modern data on predator-prey body mass relationships to predict size ranges of their typical and maximum prey when hunting as individuals and in groups. These prey size ranges are then compared with estimates of juvenile and subadult proboscidean body sizes derived from extant elephant growth data. Young proboscideans at their most vulnerable age fall within the predicted prey size ranges of many of the Pleistocene carnivores. Predation on juveniles can have a greater impact on megaherbivores because of their long interbirth intervals, and consequently, we argue that Pleistocene carnivores had the capacity to, and likely did, limit megaherbivore population sizes.

Concepts: Predation, Mammal, Population density, Lion, Hunting, Carnivore, Elephantidae, Mammoth


Assessing the numbers and distribution of threatened species is a central challenge in conservation, often made difficult because the species of concern are rare and elusive. For some predators, this may be compounded by their being sparsely distributed over large areas. Such is the case with the cheetah Acinonyx jubatus. The IUCN Red List process solicits comments, is democratic, transparent, widely-used, and has recently assessed the species. Here, we present additional methods to that process and provide quantitative approaches that may afford greater detail and a benchmark against which to compare future assessments. The cheetah poses challenges, but also affords unique opportunities. It is photogenic, allowing the compilation of thousands of crowd-sourced data. It is also persecuted for killing livestock, enabling estimation of local population densities from the numbers persecuted. Documented instances of persecution in areas with known human and livestock density mean that these data can provide an estimate of where the species may or may not occur in areas without observational data. Compilations of extensive telemetry data coupled with nearly 20,000 additional observations from 39 sources show that free-ranging cheetahs were present across approximately 789,700 km2 of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe (56%, 22%, 12% and 10% respectively) from 2010 to 2016, with an estimated adult population of 3,577 animals. We identified a further 742,800 km2 of potential cheetah habitat within the study region with low human and livestock densities, where another ∼3,250 cheetahs may occur. Unlike many previous estimates, we make the data available and provide explicit information on exactly where cheetahs occur, or are unlikely to occur. We stress the value of gathering data from public sources though these data were mostly from well-visited protected areas. There is a contiguous, transboundary population of cheetah in southern Africa, known to be the largest in the world. We suggest that this population is more threatened than believed due to the concentration of about 55% of free-ranging individuals in two ecoregions. This area overlaps with commercial farmland with high persecution risk; adult cheetahs were removed at the rate of 0.3 individuals per 100 km2 per year. Our population estimate for confirmed cheetah presence areas is 11% lower than the IUCN’s current assessment for the same region, lending additional support to the recent call for the up-listing of this species from vulnerable to endangered status.

Concepts: Africa, Endangered species, Estimation, Lion, Felidae, Cheetah, Acinonyx, IUCN Red List


The cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, is the fastest living land mammal. Because of its specialized hunting strategy, this species evolved a series of specialized morphological and functional body features to increase its exceptional predatory performance during high-speed hunting. Using high-resolution X-ray computed micro-tomography (μCT), we provide the first analyses of the size and shape of the vestibular system of the inner ear in cats, an organ essential for maintaining body balance and adapting head posture and gaze direction during movement in most vertebrates. We demonstrate that the vestibular system of modern cheetahs is extremely different in shape and proportions relative to other cats analysed (12 modern and two fossil felid species), including a closely-related fossil cheetah species. These distinctive attributes (i.e., one of the greatest volumes of the vestibular system, dorsal extension of the anterior and posterior semicircular canals) correlate with a greater afferent sensitivity of the inner ear to head motions, facilitating postural and visual stability during high-speed prey pursuit and capture. These features are not present in the fossil cheetah A. pardinensis, that went extinct about 126,000 years ago, demonstrating that the unique and highly specialized inner ear of the sole living species of cheetah likely evolved extremely recently, possibly later than the middle Pleistocene.

Concepts: Vestibular system, Inner ear, Lion, Felidae, Cougar, Cheetah, Acinonyx, Felinae


The marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, was the largest-ever marsupial carnivore, and is one of the most iconic extinct Australian vertebrates. With a highly-specialised dentition, powerful forelimbs and a robust build, its overall morphology is not approached by any other mammal. However, despite >150 years of attention, fundamental aspects of its biology remain unresolved. Here we analyse an assemblage of claw marks preserved on surfaces in a cave and deduce that they were generated by marsupial lions. The distribution and skewed size range of claw marks within the cave elucidate two key aspects of marsupial lion biology: they were excellent climbers and reared young in caves. Scrutiny of >10,000 co-located Pleistocene bones reveals few if any marsupial lion tooth marks, which dovetails with the morphology-based interpretation of the species as a flesh specialist.

Concepts: Species, Mammal, Lion, Diprotodontia, Kangaroo, Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleonidae, Thylacoleo


The trophy hunting of lions Panthera leo is contentious due to uncertainty concerning conservation impacts and because of highly polarised opinions about the practice. African lions are hunted across at least ∼558,000 km(2), which comprises 27-32% of the lion range in countries where trophy hunting of the species is permitted. Consequently, trophy hunting has potential to impart significant positive or negative impacts on lions. Several studies have demonstrated that excessive trophy harvests have driven lion population declines. There have been several attempts by protectionist non-governmental organisations to reduce or preclude trophy hunting via restrictions on the import and export of lion trophies. We document the management of lion hunting in Africa and highlight challenges which need addressing to achieve sustainability. Problems include: unscientific bases for quota setting; excessive quotas and off-takes in some countries; fixed quotas which encourage over-harvest; and lack of restrictions on the age of lions that can be hunted. Key interventions needed to make lion hunting more sustainable, include implementation of: enforced age restrictions; improved trophy monitoring; adaptive management of quotas and a minimum length of lion hunts of at least 21 days. Some range states have made important steps towards implementing such improved management and off-takes have fallen steeply in recent years. For example age restrictions have been introduced in Tanzania and in Niassa in Mozambique, and are being considered for Benin and Zimbabwe, several states have reduced quotas, and Zimbabwe is implementing trophy monitoring. However, further reforms are needed to ensure sustainability and reduce conservation problems associated with the practice while allowing retention of associated financial incentives for conservation.

Concepts: Africa, South Africa, Lion, Hunting, Leopard, Tiger, Panthera, Lions


Many threatened species rely on ecotourism for conservation funding, but simultaneously suffer direct ecological impacts from ecotourism. For a range of IUCN-Redlisted terrestrial and marine bird and mammal species worldwide, we use population viability analyses to calculate the net effects of ecotourism on expected time to extinction, in the presence of other anthropogenic threats such as poaching, primary industries and habitat loss. Species for which these calculations are currently possible, for one or more subpopulations, include: orangutan, hoolock gibbon, golden lion tamarin, cheetah, African wild dog, New Zealand sealion, great green macaw, Egyptian vulture, and African penguin. For some but not all of these species, tourism can extend expected survival time, i.e., benefits outweigh impacts. Precise outcomes depend strongly on population parameters and starting sizes, predation, and ecotourism scale and mechanisms. Tourism does not currently overcome other major conservation threats associated with natural resource extractive industries. Similar calculations for other threatened species are currently limited by lack of basic population data.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Conservation biology, Ecology, Bird, Endangered species, Lion, Hunting, Golden Lion Tamarin


Protected areas are extremely important for the long term viability of biodiversity in a densely populated country like India where land is a scarce resource. However, protected areas cover only 5% of the land area in India and in the case of large carnivores that range widely, human use landscapes will function as important habitats required for gene flow to occur between protected areas. In this study, we used photographic capture recapture analysis to assess the density of large carnivores in a human-dominated agricultural landscape with density >300 people/km in western Maharashtra, India. We found evidence of a wide suite of wild carnivores inhabiting a cropland landscape devoid of wilderness and wild herbivore prey. Furthermore, the large carnivores; leopard and striped hyaena () occurred at relatively high density of 4.8±1.2 (sd) adults/100 km and 5.03±1.3 (sd) adults/100 km respectively. This situation has never been reported before where 10 large carnivores/100 km are sharing space with dense human populations in a completely modified landscape. Human attacks by leopards were rare despite a potentially volatile situation considering that the leopard has been involved in serious conflict, including human deaths in adjoining areas. The results of our work push the frontiers of our understanding of the adaptability of both, humans and wildlife to each other’s presence. The results also highlight the urgent need to shift from a PA centric to a landscape level conservation approach, where issues are more complex, and the potential for conflict is also very high. It also highlights the need for a serious rethink of conservation policy, law and practice where the current management focus is restricted to wildlife inside Protected Areas.

Concepts: Population, Population density, Lion, Felidae, World population, Wildlife, Landscape, Striped Hyena


Despite the superb fossil record of the saber-toothed cat, Smilodon fatalis, ontogenetic age determination for this and other ancient species remains a challenge. The present study utilizes a new technique, a combination of data from stable oxygen isotope analyses and micro-computed tomography, to establish the eruption rate for the permanent upper canines in Smilodon fatalis. The results imply an eruption rate of 6.0 millimeters per month, which is similar to a previously published average enamel growth rate of the S. fatalis upper canines (5.8 millimeters per month). Utilizing the upper canine growth rate, the upper canine eruption rate, and a previously published tooth replacement sequence, this study calculates absolute ontogenetic age ranges of tooth development and eruption in S. fatalis. The timing of tooth eruption is compared between S. fatalis and several extant conical-toothed felids, such as the African lion (Panthera leo). Results suggest that the permanent dentition of S. fatalis, except for the upper canines, was fully erupted by 14 to 22 months, and that the upper canines finished erupting at about 34 to 41 months. Based on these developmental age calculations, S. fatalis individuals less than 4 to 7 months of age were not typically preserved at Rancho La Brea. On the whole, S. fatalis appears to have had delayed dental development compared to dental development in similar-sized extant felids. This technique for absolute ontogenetic age determination can be replicated in other ancient species, including non-saber-toothed taxa, as long as the timing of growth initiation and growth rate can be determined for a specific feature, such as a tooth, and that growth period overlaps with the development of the other features under investigation.

Concepts: Teeth, Tooth development, Lion, Felidae, La Brea Tar Pits, Machairodontinae, Smilodon, Saber-toothed cat


Estimations of species extinction dates are rarely definitive, yet declarations of extinction or extirpation are important as they define when conservation efforts may cease. Erroneous declarations of extinctions not only destabilize conservation efforts but also corrode local community support. Mismatches in perceptions by the scientific and local communities risk undermining sensitive, but important partnerships. We examine observations relating to the decline and extinction of Barbary lions in North Africa. Whilst the extinction predates the era of the scientific conservation movement, the decline is relatively well documented in historical records. Recently unearthed accounts suggest Barbary lions survived later than previously assumed. We use probabilistic methods to estimate a more recent extinction date for the subspecies. The evidence presented for a much later persistence of lions in North Africa, including generations when sightings were nil, suggests caution when considering felid populations as extinct in the wild. The case raises the possibility that captive animals descended from the Moroccan royal collection are closer contemporaries to wild Barbary lions. Furthermore, our results highlight the vulnerability of very small lion populations and the significance of continued conservation of remnant lion populations in Central and West Africa.

Concepts: Conservation biology, Evolution, Africa, Plant, Ecology, Lion, Extinction, Inbreeding


Previous studies have demonstrated that the Pleistocene saber-toothed cat Smilodon fatalis had many forelimb adaptations for increased strength, presumably to grapple with and subdue prey. The Rancho La Brea tar pits yield large samples of juvenile limb bones forming a growth series that allow us to examine how Smilodon kittens grew up. Almost all available juvenile limb bones were measured, and reduced major axis fits were calculated to determine the allometric growth trends. Contrary to expectations based on their robust limbs, Smilodon kittens show the typical pattern of growth found in other large felids (such as the Ice Age lion, Panthera atrox, as well as living tigers, cougars, servals, and wildcats) where the limb grows longer and more slender faster than they grow thick. This adaptation is thought to give felids greater running speed. Smilodon kittens do not grow increasingly more robust with age. Instead, they start out robust and follow the ancestral felid growth pattern, while maintaining their robustness compared to other felids. Apparently, the growth of felid forelimbs is highly canalized and their ontogeny is tightly constrained.

Concepts: Lion, Felidae, Panthera, La Brea Tar Pits, Machairodontinae, Smilodon, Homotherium, Saber-toothed cat