Black Lions: Fact or Fiction?

Black lion
Black lion

In May 2008, large black lions were alleged to be roaming the streets of Matsulu township outside the Mpumalanga capital in South Africa. Residents made anonymous phone calls to the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) about “black lions” that had supposedly escaped from the neighboring Kruger National Park.

While the MTPA took the phone calls seriously, no lions were found by officials sent to search the area and it is believed these were tawny lions seen in poor light or at night when they might appear black. According to a news report titled Black lions terrify township:

Big black lions are said to be roaming the streets of Matsulu township outside the Mpumalanga capital, terrifying residents who say they are too afraid to walk outside at night. Residents have been making anonymous phone calls to the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) about “black lions” that have escaped from the neighboring Kruger National Park, said MTPA spokesperson Jimmy Masombuka on Thursday. “We have been receiving these calls from frightened residents who tell us that they spotted black lions prowling the area. It is surprising for us to hear of black lions. But, although it’s hard to believe, you don’t just dismiss these kind of things. Maybe we are sitting on a great discovery,” he said. Masombuka said some people who said they had seen black lions may have mistaken the dark brown colours for black, or perhaps they had seen the lions at night.”

There is a mid 19th century report of a very large “black” Persian lion seen by the archaeologist Sir Henry Layard; he described it as “very dark brown in colour, in parts almost black.” Lions are no longer found in that region. This may have been related to the Barbary lion (now extinct in the wild) which is larger than African lions and famed for their extensive black manes stretching from chest to groin.

A partly black lion was born at Glasgow (Scotland) zoo, but was infertile. His colour was probably due to somatic mosaicism (abnormal skin cells). The lion had a pitch black patch extending the length of the inside front leg and across the chest. Somatic mosaicism causes some patches of skin to develop abnormal pigmentation. This anomaly also occurs in domestic cats and accounts for some of the few fertile tortoiseshell male cats.

Called “Ranger” (he was sponsored by Glasgow Rangers Football Club), he was born at Glasgow Zoo in about 1975, the offspring of some lions acquired from Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoo. At birth, the lion exhibited a melanistic patch which stretched from his right paw, all the way up the inside of his leg and across his chest. It was believed to be the first time melanism, even partial melanism, had been recorded in the African lion (apart from anecdotal cases). Ranger , frequently mated but failed to impregnate a proven fertile female. Zoo staff believed he had a chromosome abnormality. Ranger was put to sleep in 1997 and sent for post mortem at Glasgow Vet School. It was hoped that blood samples would allow testing for chromosome abnormality, but it was not possible to get testable blood samples. It would have been sensible to analyse tissue samples from the black area and golden area. A sample of testicular tissue should very definitely have been tested!

The pathologist believed that the melanistic patch was similar to that sometimes seen in domestic cats and which also results in sterility. This is a fallacy – it is not the melanistic patches which cause sterility in domestic cats! Black patches caused by chromosome abnormalities can cause sterility. Black patches caused by localised mutation of skin cells have no effect beyond the affected cells though possibly Ranger’s mutation also affected internal tissues, included the testes. Localised mutations aren’t hereditary unless the testes are also affected. If the testes were affected then Ranger might have sired black cubs instead of golden ones. If Ranger had been fertile and his trait had been hereditary then the zoo could have bred black lions (and possibly tortie female lions). After all, black leopards and black jaguars are always crowd pullers!

Black lions, chocolate brown lions and reddish brown lions have been reported. A very dark brown, almost black lion was reported in Persia (Iran) and a black lioness was reported in the African bush (Okovango). There have even been reports of whole prides of dark brown or black lions; prides comprise closely related lionesses therefore this could be a familial trait. Genetically, lions are spotted cats (residual spots can be seen on tawny lions on the limbs and sometimes on the body) and it’s possible that excessively spotted cubs (abundism) might grow into adults with a sooty cast on the fur.

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