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New Genetic Study Reconstructs Distribution History of Lion

In order to reproduce the past and current distribution of the extant lion species (Panthera leo), Dr Greger Larson and his team from Durham University, UK, have engaged in compassion of DNA from living and extinct lions.


Panthera leo, male, in Namibia. Image credit: Kevin Pluck / CC BY 2.0.

In today’s world, people can only one species of existing lion scatter over Africa and India.

During the Late Pleistocene dating back to 124,000 years ago, lions were one of the most flourishing mammals on land in the Earth. Its subgroups were widely seen to live at different geographical locations ranging from southern Africa to Eurasia and Central America.

Owing to hunting and habitat destruction in modern times, lions in India and Africa were seriously endangered. As a result, nearly thirty percent of the lions that used to live in Africa were lost in the past twenty years. Therefore, only two distinct geographical groups are identified by the current conservation policies.

However, Dr Larson and his team have recognized the five groups of lions as North African/Asian, West African, Central African, South African and East-South African.

This image shows the distribution of Panthera Leo at different times: black arrows show estimated spatial diffusions; tropical rainforests are shown in light grey; maximal extent during humid periods – black dashed line, and minimal extent during arid periods – white dashed line; the Great Rift Valley is shown in dark grey; African rivers are shown in blue; Co – Congo; Ng – Niger; Ni – Nile; Se – Senegal. Image credit: Ross Barnett et al.

By doing so, they sequenced mitochondrial DNA from individuals preserved in museums, including the Asian lion (Panthera leo persica) and the extinct Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo) as well as lions from West and Central Africa.

Their finding, published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, demonstrates that modern lions were originated from Africa in the period of Late Pleistocene. Owing to the climate changes in Africa, lion populations might had been isolated, thus the five unique geographical groups emerged.

Humid periods in Africa was much helpful for the growth of tropical rainforest and Savannah environments, but also created barriers for lion groups that failed to adapt to surviving in such habitats.

During dry periods when these environments retreated, lions got the chance to leave sub-Saharan Africa around 21,000 years ago and started to live in North Africa and Asia ever since.

Source: Sci-News.

Journal reference: Ross Barnett et al. 2014. Revealing the maternal demographic history of Panthera leo using ancient DNA and a spatially explicit genealogical analysis.BMC Evolutionary Biology 14: 70; doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-14-70.

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