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African Lions

Learn about African lion conservation and see how your vision matches up to these big cats.

Learning Goal

Lions Kenya and Dixie at the ABQ BioPark Zoo. Summer 2016.

The most researched big cat in the world is the African lion and it’s no surprise as to why: they have several unique adaptations. The first, and one of the most obvious adaptations, is that African lions are sexually dimorphic. This is just a scientific way of saying the males look different than the females. Adult male lions have the iconic mane of fur around their head, which is why they are often called “majestic” or “the king of the jungle.” Females lack this mane and are smaller than males; females can still reach up to 400 pounds and males can weigh in at about 570 pounds. Lions are also unique from other large cats because they live together in groups called prides. A pride of lions typically has one adult male, many adult females and their offspring. Prides may have as many as 30 individuals.  

Photo: San Diego Zoo Safari Park.Cats are well known for being independent and enjoy being by themselves, but lions show that there are some big advantages to living in groups. The first advantage has to do with getting something we all need to survive: food! Lions are carnivores and have physical characteristics such as large sharp teeth, powerful jaws and muscular bodies to help them grab and kill their prey. They are a golden brown color, which helps them blend into the grasses of their habitats on the African savannas. They are mostly nocturnal and hunt at night, which helps them stalk and sneak up on their prey. Even with all of these adaptations, it can still be challenging for lions to get enough food, especially because adults can eat well over 50 pounds of meat in a single sitting. Hunting in groups increases a lion’s success rate of getting food, which can include anything from a rat to an antelope or even a crocodile! If lions stumble across another savanna carnivore such as african painted dogs or hyenas, they might attempt to steal their food and keep it for themselves. 

Living in prides also means that the roles and responsibilities for survival are spread out between male lions and the female lionesses. A lioness’s main jobs are to take care of the young and to hunt for food. Their smaller size compared to the male lions make them quicker ,and it's easier for them to chase down prey. The male lion's job is to protect the pride by marking their territory, patrolling the area, and staying on the lookout for any signs of danger.  

African Lions at the ABQ BioPark

Lion Enrichment BioPark ConnectYou might notice the two lions at the BioPark, Dixie and Kenya, spend a lot of time “lion” around and napping throughout the day. This is because lions can sleep for up to 20 hours every day! They are most active in the morning and the evening hours, but that doesn’t mean you can’t spy them chasing each other around or interacting with their enrichment. Just like in wild prides, Dixie and Kenya's social life is important to keep them active and healthy. This is why we always want to have more than one lion together in their pride. As you are exploring some of the other big cat habitats on the Cat Walk, take a look and see what other cat species are housed together.

African Lion Conservation

Although not immediately threatened, lions still face dangers to survival. Though estimating the size of the African lion population across the continent is challenging, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) suspects a species population reduction of approximately 30 percent over the past two decades (this equates to approximately three lion generations). The main reasons for this decline includes indiscriminate killing of lions by humans to defend life and livestock, a decline in prey species (i.e. food availability), and lack of quality space and habitat.

The BioPark strives to help promote lion conservation through educating our visitors about lions and their importance in the ecosystem. In 2008-2009 a portion of the Zoo's Quarters for Conservation project went to the Lion Conservation Fund (LCF). LCF protects African lions by working with local communities. Through research, education and action, LCF develops sustainable solutions to lion-human conflicts

Night Vision Activity

Lions have excellent night vision to help them prowl around in the dark and hunt their prey. As humans, our night vision is definitely lacking; once our eyes get adjusted to the dark we can often see different shapes, but seeing and identifying color is near impossible! Our eyes rely on light to help us see color. You can do this activity to see how sensitive your eyes are to identifying color in dark places. 

Materials you will need

  • A dark room/closet with a little bit of light
  • Paper
  • Crayons


  1. Bring a piece of paper and some crayons with you into a dark space or room with very little light.
  2. Pick a crayon and draw a picture on your paper. Feel free to use more than one color and write out what crayon you think is each color.
  3. Come back into a lighted area and see which colors you got correct! Bright colors like yellow are usually easy to identify, even in the dark, but a lot of other colors such as red, green and blue appear to be different shades of brown or gray if there is no light to help us see them.