The lion king

The lion is a large cat native to Africa and India. Lions have captured our imagination for centuries, from the paleolithic cave art to modern movies and characters in books, lions are at the top of the food chain. The lions have long been associated with kingship, nobility and commanding power. The Swahili word for lion, simba means "king," "strong," and "aggressive", and the sacred "Lion God" in India is a fierce avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Hubert, the lion from the Oklahoma City Zoo who's genome assembly we are sharing today. Photo credit: Andrea Johnson

Did you know that lions are the only cats that live in large social groups? They are called prides. A pride can have from 3 to 30 lions and is made up of lionesses (mothers, sisters, and cousins) and their cubs, along with a few unrelated adult males. The pride has a close bond and is not likely to accept a stranger. Both males and females scent mark to define their territory.


A lion’s life is filled with sleeping, napping, and resting. Over the course of 24 hours, lions have short bursts of intense activity, followed by long bouts of lying around that total up to 21 hours!


Are lions in trouble? It is estimated that there are between 6,000 and 10,000 African lions in Africa. The Asian lion which used to be found across the Middle East and India is represented by only about 500 to 674 individuals, with more than half living in a reserve that used to be royal hunting grounds in an area of dry teak forest called the Gir Forest, now under national protection by the Indian government. The remainder of this particular subspecies lives in zoos.


Due to many issues such as disease, hunting by humans, and loss of habitat, the conservationists are very concerned about the population of lions in Africa. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies lions as Vulnerable, but they note that the vast majority of the population is inferred to have declined at a rate that meets the criteria for Endangered. The Asiatic lion currently exists as a single subpopulation in India, and is thus vulnerable to extinction from unpredictable events, such as an epidemic or large forest fire and is fully protected in India.


Today, we share the chromosome-length assembly for the South African lion (Panthera leo krugeri). The assembly was generated from a sample donated by Hubert, the king of the Oklahoma City Zoo lion pride. Thank you to Jennifer D’Agostino, DVM, DACZM, Candice Rennels, Director of Public Relations, Rebecca Snyder, Director of conservation and science and others at the Oklahoma City Zoo for their help with this sample!


This is a $1K de novo genome assembly. See our Methods page for details on the procedure. We gratefully acknowledge the Pawsey Supercomputing Center for the computational support for this assembly, and the computational assistance from the DNA Zoo Australia team at the University of Western Australia. Check the interactive map of Hubert's chromosomes below, and look for more data and info on the assembly page!


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