Panthera leo melanochaitus


Kingdom Animalia

A Cape Lion pair in the Rosensteinmuseum in Stuttgart, Germany. 

Copyright and courtesy by Sordes. All rights reserved.

Phylum Chordata 
Class Mammalia 
Order Carnivora
Family Felidae
Genus Panthera
Species Panthera leo
Subspecies Panthera leo melanochaitus
Authority (Smith, 1842)
TEW Status Extinct (EX), Year assessed: 2010
IUCN Status Not Evaluated
English Name Cape Lion
Dutch Name Kaapse Leeuw
Finnish Name Kapinleijona
French Name Lion du Cap
German Name Kaplöwe
Portuguese Name Leão do Cabo
Spanish Name León del Cabo
Synonyms Felis leo capensis J. B. Fischer, 1830 [preoccupied]; Felis (Leo) melanochaitus H. Smith, 1842; Felis (Leo) melanochoetus H. Smith, 1842 [misspelling]
Taxonomy Eight recent lions subspecies are commonly recognised, with one in Asia and seven in Africa. However, the validity of the African subspecies is debated and they could probably be grouped into one single African subspecies (Nowell & Jackson, 1996); in fact, the African lion is often considered as monotypic (e.g. Kingdon, 1997; Skinner & Smithers, 1990). The 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, based on genetic analysis (O'Brien et al. 1987, Dubach et al. 2005), recognised only two subspecies: the African lion (Panthera leo leo) and the Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica (Bauer, Nowell, & Packer 2008). 

The Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) are genetically distinct from the lions of sub-Saharan Africa, although the difference is not large, being smaller than the genetic distance between human racial groups. Based on genetic distance, the Asiatic lion is estimated to have separated from the African population as recently as 100,000 years ago, not long enough for reproductive incompatibilities to have evolved (O’Brien et al. 1987). 

Recent genetic and morphological research showed that the Barbary lion (North African lion population) is slightly different from the Asiatic lion (Asian lion population), but clearly distinct from sub-Saharan lions (Hemmer and Burger 2005; Barnett et al. 2006; Burger and Hemmer 2006). Grouping all African lions into one single subspecies, including the North African Barbary lion, would therefore be incorrect. The Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo) can be considered a distinct valid lion subspecies.

Lions show a considerable variation in the development and colouration of their mane. Based mainly on this, many subspecies have been described. But most lion  populations are so variable that most researchers no longer recognize these geographical forms. Some of the putative subspecies, however, have a long-standing tradition in the taxonomic literature and two of these have become extinct.

It is believed that most of the lions found in Southern Africa were a subspecies known as the Cape Lion (or black-maned lion of the Cape). The physical appearance of this lion differed from that of the lions which inhabit southern and east Africa today. Until recently researchers were not been able to ascertain whether the extinct Cape Lion is indeed a different subspecies. Genetic research, published in 2006, did not support the ‘‘distinctness’’ of the Cape lion. It now seems probable that the Cape lion was only the the southernmost population of the extant southern African lion. (Yamaguchi 2000; Barnett et al. 2006)

Recognised recent lion subspecies
Lion subspecies (scientific names) Lion subspecies (common names)
Panthera leo azandica (Allen, 1924) North East Congo lion
Panthera leo bleyenberghi (Lönnberg, 1914) Southwest African lion
Panthera leo krugeri (Roberts, 1929) Southeast African lion
Panthera leo leo (Linnaeus, 1758) Barbary lion
Panthera leo melanochaita (Smith, 1842 Cape lion
Panthera leo nubica (De Blainville, 1843) East African lion
Panthera leo persica (Meyer, 1826) Asiatic lion
Panthera leo senegalensis (Meyer, 1826) West African lion
Recent lion subspecies with sub-Saharan populations grouped into one subspecies
Lion subspecies (scientific names) Lion subspecies (common names)
Panthera leo leo (Linnaeus, 1758) Barbary lion
Panthera leo persica (Meyer, 1826) Asiatic lion
Panthera leo senegalensis (Meyer, 1826) Sub-Saharan African lion
Comments Like with the Barbary lion, several people and institutions claim to have Cape lions, and this lion subspecies is often seen as 'extinct in the wild'. There is much confusion between Cape Lions and other dark-coloured long-maned captive lions. 

Early authors believed that the seemingly fixed external morphology of Cape lions (male’s huge dark-coloured  mane extending behind shoulders and covering belly) would justify their ‘‘distinct’’ subspecific status and be used to identify them. However, it is now known that the colour and size of a lion’s mane are influenced by various extrinsic factors, including the ambient temperature (West and Packer 2002). Therefore, a heavy mane developed in a cooler place (e.g. European or North American zoos) is an inappropriate marker for identifying Cape lines, which need to be identified by molecular markers (Yamaguchi and Haddane 2002). (Barnett et al. 2006)

Lions in captivity today have been bred and cross-bred from lions captured in Africa long ago, with examples from all of these described 'subspecies'. Mixed together, hybridised, most of today's captive lions have a 'soup' of genes from many different lions. 

Compound that with the many other variables that decide the extent and colour of a lion's mane and you begin to see just how inappropriate the following statement is: "This lion has a long dark-coloured mane and so must be a Cape". Until the DNA fingerprinting was produced, there was no definitive way to identify a lion as Cape. Results of mitochondrial DNA research published in 2006 did not support the ‘‘distinctness’’ of the Cape lion. It now seems probable that the Cape lion was only the the southernmost population of the extant southern African lion.

The Extinction Website does not recognize the existence of a living specimen of the Cape lion, and acknowledges that the subspecies is extinct. For more information on possible surviving Cape lions, see Selective Breeding.

Characteristics Cape Lions were the largest and darkest of sub-Saharan lions and the males stood out by their very long and heavy mane, which was nearly black, except for a more brownish fringe around the face. They also showed a well-developed, blackish mane in the abdominal area. They also had distinctive black tips to their ears.
Range & Habitat The exact former range of the Cape lion is not known (Christiansen, 2008). It has been suggested that this lion occurred thoughout the previous Cape Province (nowadays the provinces of Western Cape, Northern Cape, and Eastern Cape) and up to Natal (Mazak, 1964; Christiansen, 2008). However, this has been questioned and evidence tentatively suggests that the Cape lion occurred in the interior of the westen part of the Cape Province (Mazak, 1975; Christiansen, 2008). The eastern coastal area of the Cape Province could have been inhabited by the Southeast African Lion (Panthera leo krugeri), as the mountain range Eastern Escarpment separated it from the plains north and west of Cape Town  (Mazak, 1964; Christiansen, 2008).
Food All lions are carnivorous. The Cape lion's food consisted of larger game, mainly antelopes, but also zebras, giraffes and buffaloes. They would also kill the donkeys and cattle belonging to the European settlers. Man-eating Cape lions were generally old lions with bad teeth, according to Ahuin Haagner in his "South African Mammals". (Day 1981)
History & Population The first permanent European settlement in the Cape region was established by the Dutch on 6 April 1652. The Cape lion reached the Netherlands in the 17th century, when the Dutch established their Cape Colony. This lion subspecies is recognizable in drawings by the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt (Van den Hoek Ostende, 1999). During this period many European settlers arrived. 

Image: An extinct Cape Lion (Panthera leo melanochaitus) in a drawing of the Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. XVII century. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the European Union, Canada, the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.

Records show that these lions were common near Cape Town itself until the end of the 17th century. Even in the 18th century the Cape lion was not uncommon in the vicinity of Cape Town, although declining. The first British occupation of the Cape Colony began in 1795 and up until the 19th century Cape lions were found by hunters away from the immediate neighbourhood of Cape Town, especially on the Karoo and in the Uitenhage. The Cape lion's numbers kept declining and eventually it vanished.

The exact year of extinction of the Cape Lion is unknown, although it is said that the last Cape Lion seen in the Cape Province was killed in 1858, and the last of the subspecies was hunted down in Natal by one General Bisset in 1865. 

Extinction Causes The Cape lion disappeared so rapidly following contact with Europeans, that it is unlikely that habitat destruction was a significant factor. The Dutch and English settlers, hunters and sportsmen, simply hunted it into extinction. Also civilization swept away the once vast herds of game which formed the most important food source of the Cape lion. 
Selective Breeding For 30 years, South African zoo director John Spence searched for descendants of the Cape lion. Spence came to believe that some Cape lions might have survived outside of South Africa. Spence is sure that some of the cubs of the Cape lion were taken to Europe, where they bred with European zoo lions. Some of them might still carry the original genes, and many of these captive European lions also have the black mane. He visited zoos and circuses in places as far away as the United States and Singapore to inspect animals that bore a resemblance to the Cape lion. He met with frustration after frustration. He found many lions that were close matches to the Cape lion, but none that looked exactly like the sturdy, massive animals he had read much about. In January of 2000, friends in Europe sent Spence a picture of a unique lion they had seen in the world-renowned Novosibrisk Zoo in Siberia. With its jet black mane, wide face, sturdy legs, and large size, the lion, called Simon, looked exactly like a living reproduction of the animals that Spence had seen only in paintings. After contacting the zoo in Siberia, Spence arranged to take Simon's cubs, Rustislav and Olga (named after the Novosibrisk Zoo curator and his wife) back with him to Africa. The two lions now live in their own pen in the Tygerberg Zoo. The cubs are already much larger than the full-grown lions in other parts of the zoo. They also bear the unmistakable markings of a juvenile Cape lion (e.g. a large number of spots and black tips behind the ear). Spence hopes to eventually use Rustislav and Olga in an attempt to restore the breed in South Africa. He also may build them a larger lion reserve, closer to Table Mountain, where their ancestors once roamed. If these two cubs are truly Cape lion or at least descendents can only be determined by genetic research. Currently this has not been done. (BBC News 2000; Irwin 2001)

Dr. Yamaguchi is doing research to the Cape lion. In 2000, he came to the conclusion that the continuous lion distribution in Southern Africa challenges the ‘‘distinctness’’ of the Cape lion. And if genetic research would show that some populations of the existing southern African lion appears to be acceptably close to the extinct Cape lion, the resurrection of the black-maned lion lost in the Cape Province may become a feasible conservation project. (Yamaguchi 2000)

Results of mitochondrial DNA research published in 2006 did not support the ‘‘distinctness’’ of the Cape lion. It now seems probable that the Cape lion was only the the southernmost population of the extant southern African lion. In this context, the researchers suggest that the Cape lion may be restored in situ by using the extant southern African lion. (Barnett et al. 2006)

Museum Specimens Eight mounted skins of Cape Lions have been preserved in scientific collections, as well as a few skulls. Specimens can be found in the Natuurhistorisch Museum 'Naturalis' (Leiden, the Netherlands), the Rosensteinmuseum (Stuttgart, Germany), the Museum Wiesbaden (Wiesbaden, Germany). Mitochondrial DNA research in 2006 revealed that the old specimen in the Zoological Museum Amsterdam (Amsterdam, the Netherlands), tentatively identified as a Cape lion (van Bree 1998), contained the Indian marker, and thus is not a Cape lion. (Barnett et al. 2006)
Relatives Genetic evidence suggests that all modern lions derived from one common ancestor only ca. 55,000 years ago, so all African lions might be lumped into one subspecies. Unlike the Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo), which would have been isolated from other African lions by the Sahara, the Cape lion was in close geographical proximity to other lion populations in southern Africa. Considering this, the Cape lion may have maintained genetic exchanges with the widely distributed southern African lions, Panthera leo krugeri. Separated by the Great Escarpment (a mountainous terrain of the eastern side of South Africa), the Cape lion distributed south-west and the South African lion north-east. Therefore, it is suggested that these two lion populations did not mix because of this geological barrier. Although it is not known how hard the River Orange and its tributaries were for lions to cross, the Cape lion may have closer genetic association with lions in Kalahari region, Panthera leo verneyi. If the ancient DNA technique can extract Cape lion's DNA, comparing it to those of Kruger (South African) and Kalahari lions, this question would be answered. (Yamaguchi 2000)

The Cape Lions (Panthera leo melanochaita) of the Museum Wiesbaden

Cape Lion - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Cape Lion - Panthera leo melanochaitus

The Barbary and Cape Lions

Extinction: Cape Lion UWSP GEOG358 [Heywood]

Has Rare Lion of Africa's Cape Eluded Extinction?

BBC News | MEDIA REPORTS | 'Extinct' lions surface in Siberia



(Complete website)

Barnett, R., N. Yamaguchi, I. Barnes & A. Cooper. 2006. Lost populations and preserving genetic diversity in the lion Panthera leo: Implications for its ex situ conservation. Conservation Genetics. Online full-text pdf

BBC News. 2000 'Extinct' lions surface in Siberia. ( Downloaded on 15 November 2005.

Christiansen, P. (2008). On the distinctiveness of the Cape lion (Panthera leo melanochaita) and a new specimen from the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen. Mammalian Biology 73:58–65.  

Day, D., 1981, The Doomsday Book of Animals, Ebury Press, London.

Irwin, R. 2001. Has Rare Lion of Africa's Cape Eluded Extinction? National Geographic News ( Downloaded on 15 November 2005. 

Kingdon J. (1997). The Kingdon field guide to African Mammals. Academic Press, London and New York: Natural World.

Mazak, V., 1964. Preliminary list of the specimens of Panthera leo melanochaitus Ch. H. Smith, 1842, preserved in the museums of the whole world in 1963. Zäugetierk 29, 52–58.

Mazak, V., 1975. Notes on the black-maned lion of the Cape, Panthera leo melanochaita (Ch. H. Smith, 1842) and a revised list of preserved specimens. Verh. Koninkl. Nederlandse Akad. Wetenschappen 64, 1-44.

Nowell, K. and Jackson, P. (compilers and editors) 1996. Wild Cats. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

Skinner J.D., Smithers R.H.N. (1990). The mammals of the Southern African subregion. University of Pretoria, Pretoria.

Smith, H. 1842. Introduction to mammals. Jardine’s Naturalists’ Library. Second edition. Volume 15 (not seen; year is given variously as 1842 by Hemmer [1974:231] and Pocock [1930: 660], 1846 by Roberts [1951:190] and Shortridge [1934:77], and 1858 by Hollister [1910:123]).

Van Bree PJH (1998) On a mounted skeleton of apparently the extinct Cape lion, Panthera leo melanochaita (Ch. H. Smith, 1842). Contrib. Zool., 68, 67–71.

Van den Hoek Ostende, L.W. 1999. Lion - Slowly ticking away.  300 Pearls - Museum highlights of natural diversity. Downloaded on 27 September 2005.

West P.M., Packer C. (2002) Sexual selection, temperature, and the lion’s mane. Science, 297, 1339–1343. 

Yamaguchi, N. (2000). The Barbary lion and the Cape lion: their phylogenetic places and conservation. African Lion Working Group News 1: 9-11.

Last updated: 3th March 2010.

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