Lions In Ethiopia Are Genetically Distinct, DNA Evidence Confirms

October 12, 2012 in Animals & Insects

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The Addis Ababa lion in Ethiopia has been found to be genetically distinct from all other lions, by new DNA evidence. Immediate action to ‘protect’ this nearly extinct lion population is necessary to prevent its approaching extinction, say the researchers involved in the work.


It has long been observed that the lions in some parts of Ethiopia have a much larger, darker mane than other lions; extending from the head, neck and chest to the belly. They also tend towards being more compact and of smaller stature than other lions. But whether these observable differences were due to genetic differences or other causes wasn’t known until this new genetic research.

The research, done by comparing the DNA samples taken from 15 different Addis Ababa Zoo lions to a variety of different wild lion breeds, shows very clearly that the captive lions at the zoo are genetically distinct from all other known lion populations.

Principal Investigator Professor Michi Hofreiter, of the Department of Biology at the University of York, said: “To our knowledge, the males at Addis Ababa Zoo are the last existing lions to possess this distinctive mane. Both microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA data suggest the zoo lions are genetically distinct from all existing lion populations for which comparative data exist.”

“We therefore believe the Addis Ababa lions should be treated as a distinct conservation management unit and are urging immediate conservation actions, including a captive breeding programme, to preserve this unique lion population.”

Lions are the primary land-based predator in Africa, functioning as an integral species in the savannah ecosystems. Their numbers are in serious decline though, with some predictions by respected researchers that they may be extinct within 20 years. A number of their different unique populations have already gone extinct; the North African Barbary lions and the South African Cape lions. And of course that’s not even to mention the extinction of the European lion during roman times, or the many other subspecies that have disappeared as civilization has expanded.

The lion population is Ethiopia has been rapidly declining as of late, “in addition to a few hundred wild lions scattered throughout the country, 20 lions are kept in the Addis Ababa Zoo. These lions belonged to the collection of the late emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. He established the zoo in 1948 and the seven founder lions (five males and two females) are claimed to have been captured in south-western Ethiopia, although their geographical origin is controversial.”

Lead author Susann Bruche, now with Imperial College London, but who conducted the research with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said: “A great amount of genetic diversity in lions has most likely already been lost, largely due to human influences. Every effort should be made to preserve as much of the lion’s genetic heritage as possible. We hope field surveys will identify wild relatives of the unique Addis Ababa Zoo lions in the future, but conserving the captive population is a crucial first step. Our results show that these zoo lions harbour sufficient genetic diversity to warrant a captive breeding programme.”

Though it has been suggested that there are no lions that are comparable to those at Addis Ababa Zoo remaining in the wild, the researchers note that “according to the Ethiopian authorities, lions with a similar appearance to those at Addis Ababa Zoo still exist in the east and north-east of the country, notably in the Babille Elephant Sanctuary near Harar and southwards to Hararghe.” These regions should be prioritized in any potential conservation efforts the researchers say, beginning with field surveys. Ethiopian lions have seen their numbers crash primarily because of hunting for their manes, and loss of territory.

Professor Hofreiter said: “A key question is which wild population did the zoo lions originate from and whether this wild population still exists; this would obviously make it a priority for conservation. What is clear is that these lions did not originate in the zoo, but come from somewhere in the wild — but not from any of the populations for which comparative data is available.”

It remains to be seen how effective any conservation efforts could be for this genetically distinct group of lions, or any lions; lions could very well be extinct in the wild within the coming decades.

The research, done by scientists from Leipzig Zoo and the Universities of Durham and Oxford, UK, was just published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research.

Source: University of York

Image Credits: Joerg Junhold and Klaus Eulenberger, Leipzig Zoo

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