African lions probably 2 distinct species
April 2011: There is a remarkable difference between the lions of west and central Africa compared to those in the east and south of the continent, according to new research.The study suggests that lions from west and central Africa are genetically different from lions in east and southern Africa. The researchers analysed a region on the mitochondrial DNA of lions from across Africa and India, including sequences from extinct lions such as the Atlas lions in Morocco.Surprisingly, lions from West and Central Africa seemed to be more related to lions from the Asiatic subspecies than to their counterparts in East and Southern Africa. Previous research has already suggested that lions in West and Central Africa are smaller in size and weight, have smaller manes, live in smaller groups, eat smaller prey and may also differ in the shape of their skull, compared to their counterparts in east and southern Africa. However, this research was not backed by conclusive scientific evidence. The present research findings show that the difference is also reflected in the genetic makeup of the lions.The distinction between lions from the two areas of Africa can partially be explained by the location of natural structures that may form barriers for lion dispersal. These structures include the Central African rainforest and the Rift Valley, which stretches from Ethiopia to Tanzania and from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Mozambique.Another aspect explaining the unique genetic position of the West and Central African lion is the climatological history of this part of the continent.It is hypothesised that a local extinction occurred, following periods of severe drought 18,000-40,000 years ago. During this period, lions continuously ranged deep into Asia and it is likely that conditions in the Middle East were still sufficiently favourable to sustain lion populations. The data suggests that West and Central Africa was recolonised by lions from areas close to India, which explains the close genetic relationship between lions from these two areas.