• William Versfeld

Exploring the connectivity of fragmented lion populations

When we think about the African lion (Panthera leo), we picture a majestic predator from Africa, the king of the savanna. This iconic species was present in most of Africa until the Late Pleistocene (14,000 years ago), after which the species experienced a global decline. Recently scientists have been using genetic methods to explore the evolutionary history of the species, in order to better manage the now fragmented populations that have survived to this day.

A recent study used whole genome sequencing (WGS) to shed light on this history. Scientists used samples from ancient, now extinct, “cave lions” and modern lions distributed throughout their historical and present range. Within the modern lion population, two lineages were observed, namely Northern (Asia, West Africa and North Africa) and Southern (Central Africa, East Africa and South Africa), which were estimated to have shared a common ancestor about 70,000 years ago. However, this study raises additional questions about the central lion population. While this study found these lions to be more closely related to the southern lineage (see figure), other studies based on maternal mitochondrial DNA, suggest the central population to be more closely related to the northern lineage.

We are far from having a detailed understanding of how lions evolved. ORC is currently contributing to a study of Namibian lion genomics, part of a continent-wide effort aimed at providing a deeper understanding of the genetic structure of modern lion populations. Maintaining genetic diversity in these populations is crucial to retaining the evolutionary potential of the species.

de Manuel et al, 2020. The evolutionary history of extinct and living lions, PNAS