Rare Maned Lionesses Are Nature's Bearded Ladies

11/02/2012

Maned-lioness-1
Photo: Deon De Villiers via News Watch @ National Geographic

Botswana‘s Okavango Delta contains some of the world's most unusual big cats. These lions might look like your typical kings of the jungle, but think again: they're actually queens. Yes, that's right, these rare lionesses sport flowing, golden manes, just like their male counterparts.

While maned lionesses are only a minority among females in Okavango, they're common enough that safaris in the region often encounter them. Scientists suspect that the masculinized appearance could be due to a genetic disposition. If so, there's a good chance that all the maned females are related. A pride full of manes!

In fact, the maned females could offer their prides significant survival advantages. If hyenas or other competing predators believe them to be males because of their manes, they may be more easily dissuaded about poaching kills away from the pride. Likewise, invading male lions may think twice before challenging the pride's ranks if they believe it's a pride full of males.

Luke Hunter, president of the big-cat conservation group Panthera, hypothesized to National Geographic that the manes could also be due to a hormonal disruption during embryonic development.

"The problem may have occurred during gestation if the fetus was exposed to increased levels of androgens— male hormones such as testosterone," he said.

For instance, when this happens during fetal development in humans, it can cause female offspring to develop masculine traits, such as facial hair. In other words, these maned lionesses could be Nature's version of the bearded lady. 

The downside is that these hormonal imbalances could cause the effected females to be infertile-- but it shouldn't negatively impact their ability to survive.

Though isolated maned lionesses can occasionally be shunned, once they're accepted into a pride they tend to act like normal females. So it goes to show: you can never judge a book by its cover. Or, apparently, a lion by its mane.

By Bryan Nelson

Source: National Geographic


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