Probably the first image people get when they think of lions is a big maned male. The mane has become one of the most iconic characteristics of a lion. And why not? It gives them a look of regal dignity or majesty, it is the king’s crown after all. But why do lions grow manes? What purpose does it serve?

Several studies have tried to discover the purpose of a lions mane but it still remains a mystery. To complicate the search for our answer some males never even grow manes. This could be genetics as certain areas are known for producing maneless males. Or it could be that the habitat is not conducive to mane growth as in having too many thorn bushes that pull out the hair of the mane, although one would expect some remnants of mane even if most of it was pulled out.

But back to our quest for why grow a mane at all. Obviously they are not meant for thermo regulation. Why would a lion need a mane to trap heat when they are found in hot climates, and why wouldn’t the females grow manes if this was the case. So what about defense?

Defense is one of the leading theories as to why lions grow manes. The idea being that the extra hair acts as a shield preventing major injury to the neck and chest when two males are fighting for control of a pride or territory. Dr. Whitman of the University of Minnesota conducted a study to determine if this was the reason. In the study they enticed territorial males to attack paper cutout or mounted specimens, as to instigate fights between males would be inhumane, and recorded where the male attacked the most. Their conclusion was that the lions mane was not for defensive purposes as the pride males typically attacked the hind-quarters of the decoys. The flaw with this is that the males were attacking stationary targets. A living male would not allow the attacker to circle behind it like that. They also had a second part of the study in which they observed males that had been wounded in normal battles but this was difficult to do as observing extent and placement of injuries on living animals is hard to determine. They also had difficulty keeping track of individual lions.

So what do we know about lion manes? One of our guides on my recent study trip to Africa discussed lion mane growth with us one evening. He has worked with lions for nearly a decade. and observed several regime changes in the prides found at the reserve he works for. One thing he has observed is a link between mane growth and dominance. Typically young nomadic males have thin scruffy manes. However when they take over a pride they begin to grow thicker manes, in coalitions the alpha male also tends to have the largest mane. So is it a product of increased testosterone once they take charge and are active in the breeding process? Maybe it is the lion equivalent to a fancy sports car, a kind of hey ladies look at me sort of thing. Or is it a signal to other males of their dominance, as if to say “don’t mess with me, I am bigger and stronger than you”?

As of now we have no conclusive evidence as to the real purpose of a lion’s mane. Still they remain a defining characteristic for the lion and a classic symbol of Africa.

~ “ There is nothing so beautiful, or as enjoyable to my ears as the roar of a lion upon a still night when everything is calm and no sound disturbs the solitude, except the awe-inspiring notes like the rumble of distant thunder, as they die away in the deepest bass.” – Sir Samuel Baker on lions, 19th century. ~

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