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Rare Maned Lionesses Explained

If it looks like a male lion and is perceived as a male lion—well, sometimes it isn’t. That’s the case of Africa’s unusual maned lionesses, which sport a male’s luxurious locks and may even fool competitors.

Though uncommon, maned lionesses have been regularly sighted in the Mombo area of Botswana‘s Okavango Delta (including the individual pictured below), where the lion population may carry a genetic disposition toward the phenomenon, according to Luke Hunter, president of the big-cat conservation group Panthera, which collaborates with National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)

Hunter said it’s possible that maned lionesses in Mombo are related—including a safari favorite named Martina, which disappeared in 2002. (Learn more about how you can see the maned lionesses at Mombo Camp.)

A maned lioness in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Photograph courtesy Deon De Villiers.

Such masculine females likely occur when the embryo is disrupted, either at conception or while in the womb, he said by email.

“If the former case, the genetic contribution of the sperm—which determines the sex of the fetus in most mammals—was probably aberrant, giving rise to a female with some male characteristics.

“Alternatively and perhaps more likely, the problem may have occurred during gestation if the fetus was exposed to increased levels of androgens— male hormones such as testosterone.”

If a lion mother had abnormally high androgens during pregnancy, her female offspring may end up “masculinized”—a situation that occurs occasionally in people but which is rarely observed in wild animals.

A maned lioness with a fellow female. Photograph courtesy Ryan Green.

Whatever the case, such lionesses would likely be infertile but otherwise “perfectly capable” of surviving, Hunter noted. (See more lion pictures.)

In fact, their manes may actually be a boon to the pride—for instance, if the female is perceived as a male, she may better defend kills from hyenas or the pride from attacks by foreign males. In the case of the pictured female, Hunter said, it seems like she’s treated as a lioness by the rest of the pride.

“It would be interesting to know if she behaved like a male,” he added. “Two similarly aberrant Serengeti lionesses were outwardly female—they did not have manes, but were almost male-sized, and they challenged and fought unfamiliar males for territories as though they were males!”

More lion news:

Unusual” Pictures: Lions vs. Hippo

Female Lions Prefer Dark-Maned Males, Study Finds

Man-Eating Lions Not Aberrant, Experts Say

Comments

  1. EW
    UK
    September 3, 8:34 am

    I remember seeing the original female, known as Martina in 2000, as well as the present maned female Mmamoriri more recently. They are probably intersex, a conditionwhich occurs in humans and other animals. Intersex can have various causes, one of which is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, where the individual appears to have female genitalia, but internal testes. Another cause is Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, in which virilisation originates metabolically, but masculinizing effects, such as thick male hair, continue after birth. Martina was observed mating, but never became pregnant, which would indicate that she was infertile. The present maned female in the Western Pride, Mmamoriri, has been seen to mount another female. It would seem that nobody has done any tests to prove what the cause is, so the reason can only be speculation, based on the knowledge of other individuals with similar characteristics. Cells in the ovaries of some females are like the cells in testes and these females will be infertile.

  2. Joyce
    New Jersey, USA
    August 17, 5:46 pm

    It astonishes me that people do not realize that animals, plants, people, all have thriving populations of the less than dead center average for their species. Humans have hermaphrodites; it’s just often “corrected” by best guess at birth and often the child doesn’t even know unless come puberty they find out the doctor guessed wrong. It’s one of those never discussed topics. Reproduction is complicated! The famous Tsavo Lions “Ghost and Darkness” were maneless. There are many other groups of maneless male lions; where the mane seemed to be bred out because of environmental issues. There are bearded women, and certainly are bearded, so to speak, lionesses. There are species which are all female until a male in the population is needed and vice versa. Why humans get so excited over gay, trans, whatever is primarily because they are so ignorant, often willfully so, of actual science and what truly exists in the world. If they’d look, they’d find their God, by whatever name, is far more awesome than they know. The possibilities are endless.

  3. Gwenie Mugliston
    Pittsburgh, PA
    July 25, 9:48 am

    There are at least 5 varieties of different physical sexual expressions in humans. Every species seems to have chimeras. Genes and chromosomes are “mobile”. Social pressures influence numbers of male or females within flocks or groups. I am surprised there aren’t more differences, that is, obvious visual differences within any group of any “animal” population and that word includes anything living. I can’t imagine how many non-visual differences there might be. Isn’t it wonderful?

  4. Dr Adrian Tordiffe
    Pretoria, South Africa
    February 3, 2:13 am

    I have investigated a case like this at the National Zoo here in South Africa (see http://www.nzg.ac.za/newsletter/issues/29/06.php). Our lioness is not a typical hermaphrodite or intersex as she has normal XX chromosomes and almost normal female reproductive organs (except for her ovaries that contained cells typically seen in testes, and no typical ovarian cells). I am currently looking for more cases like this to add to a case series before publishing the results of our findings.

  5. Anthony Martini
    Tennessee
    July 26, 2013, 5:42 am

    There is a maned African lioness in the Knoxville Zoo, always mistaken for a male. I don’t know what their source is, but they compare it to hormone changes from aging “just like women over 50″…which always goes over well with the women in the crowd.

  6. Catherine
    Richmond, VA
    June 15, 2013, 8:50 am

    Nat Geo – If you are going to report on this, please report on what is known, not all these “Probably,” “More likely,” and “would likely be” statements. I see nothing of fact in this article beyond a female lion has a mane. Beyond that, we know nothing and nobody’s taken the time to take samples, run tests, or do genetic comparisons. Right?

    Masquerading theories as science is not good reporting. And unworthy of Nat Geo, for which I usually have great respect.

  7. northierthanthou
    http://northierthanthou,com
    June 3, 2013, 9:41 pm

    Heh, …let the right wing echo chamber winge about this liberal development!

  8. wendy taumata
    new zealand
    April 4, 2013, 7:25 am

    The lion is intersex you dont need to explaine it,just as there are intersex people ,animals and plantlife its just a common natural variation of biology.very common but not commonly known.

  9. horacio altuna
    January 12, 2013, 12:22 pm

    We stumbled over here coming from a different site and thought I might as well check things out. I like what I see so now i am following you. Look forward to going over your web page again.

  10. anthea
    Pretoria
    December 31, 2012, 2:53 am

    Somewhere amongst my hundreds of photos I have a picture of a lioness with mane I took in 1994. She was saved from euthansia at an overseas zoo and brought back to Africa.

  11. britt
    winnipeg
    December 24, 2012, 7:50 am

    Now I understand I am a layman in biology, but why would she be infertile? there are bearded ladies with babies, would this not be similar to that?

  12. Aaron
    Canada
    December 23, 2012, 5:43 pm

    A brilliant example of the fact that nature is, by… er…nature meant to be diverse and that creation is ongoing. To respond to this with anything other than admiring awe and fascination is to crush the world into our own self-centered tininess. From a creationist point of view, if male and female were meant to be distinct and never blurred existences, then why would all fetuses begin as sex-neutral with such a fragile potentiality for either sex? We should never judge nature, but be joyfully humbled by how little we understand God’s way.

  13. Sara
    December 4, 2012, 2:24 pm

    I wonder if this is an issue of increased exposure to hormones in the environment perhaps in their drinking water specifically as hormones are often not successfully filtered out in water treatment processes before going back out into the environment. I also wonder if this is having any adverse effects not described in this article.

  14. salmotunist
    signal mtn, tennessee
    November 7, 2012, 12:55 pm

    I won’t judge
    an animal’s lifestyle choice, but I believe pollution may have something to do with this.

  15. peggy Richter
    October 22, 2012, 5:54 pm

    I would think that some of the same chromosomal abnormality and hormonal faults causing mixed or “false” secondary sex characteristics found in people and dogs would occur in lions. Along with “maned females” there are maneless males among lions. The question is if there is any serious advantage to the pride or half sibling survival of such animals or if it is simply an occasional “oddity” like an albino whale.

  16. solarwindspirit
    October 19, 2012, 10:53 am

    Who says its androgens that play such a important role in a mane?. . .and why is the female cannot have a mane. . .anyway I hope she has a bunch of cubs some just like her to prove you guys wrong. Why in nature the female has to be the plain jane. . .who says? Scoot over let me prove you wrong. . .and wrong again. A female has both. . .androgens estrogen and progesterone. .she gave it to you males. . .she made you.

  17. ommu3az
    Egypt
    October 18, 2012, 2:16 am

    why don’t you make an Arabic version Or put Arabic language on your page & magazine you are very interesting

  18. Marushka France
    United States
    October 16, 2012, 3:44 am

    Global spread of radioactive contamination is known to cause and increase such abnormalities: “Overtly healthy newborns
    in Gomel and Mogilev provinces had elevated
    cortisol levels where contamination was
    less than 15 Ci/km2 and decreased levels in
    heavily contaminated areas (Danil’chik et al.,
    1996). The number of children with impaired
    hormone secretion (cortisol, thyroxin, and progesterone)
    was significantly higher in heavily
    contaminated territories (Sharapov, 2001).
    3. Children from heavily contaminated territories
    had lower levels of testosterone, a hormone
    associated with physical development,
    with low levels linked to impaired reproductive
    function (Lyalykov et al., 1993).
    4. Many girls of pubertal age, 13 to 14
    years, from the contaminated territories with
    autoimmune thyroiditis had accelerated sexual
    development with significantly increased
    blood serum concentrations of gonadotropic
    hormones in the lutein phase of their menstrual
    cycles (Leonova, 2001).”
    about a minute ago · Like

    “Other scientists have come up againstmore serious
    pathologies. As a rule, at the age of 12–13 years
    girls begin to menstruate. Not one of the 300 girls
    in the study had done so. Ultrasound examinations
    showed that their uteruses and ovaries were
    underdeveloped . . . “Our results could be wildly
    accidental, Dr. Vvedensky said, but among these
    300 girls there was one who had no internal reproductive
    organs at all. . . . While we have no right to
    draw any scientific conclusions—if we had found
    at least three out of 10,000 girls with the same
    developmental anomaly, then it would be possible
    to speak about a terrible physiological catastrophe.”
    However, we doctors do not have money for
    more detailed and extensive studies. Vvedensky’s
    group has come to the conclusion that the reason
    for the changes is hormonal imbalance. Under the
    influence of irradiation a large amount of testosterone
    develops in the female organism. Testosterone
    is a male hormone that is normally present
    only in very small quantities in females, but when a
    woman has too much of it she can lose her female
    characteristics. . ..” (Ulevich, 2000)

    “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment”
    Alexey Yablokov, Vasily Nesterenko and Alexey Nesterenko
    Contributing Editor, Janette Sherman
    NY Academy of Sciences, Volume 1181, 2009.
    5,000 Slavic language studies reviews, over 1,400 cited.
    http://www.strahlentelex.de/Yablokov%20Chernobyl%20book.pdf

  19. Mobeen
    karachi, pakistan
    October 16, 2012, 2:27 am

    This female lioness can easily be a victim of any other dominant male lion just because of mane. Male lion may be not accept her.

  20. jil
    October 15, 2012, 6:50 am

    Chieh Chen – your logic sucks. Prenatal hormonal disruption is the cause.

    Sam – if everything inside is female. But the outside looks like a guy. It’s a bio female.
    What are you the female ambassador? Does this lion not fit your female look?

  21. JJG
    October 15, 2012, 12:18 am

    Does that also mean there are male lions without manes?

  22. Animal Safaris
    Nairobi
    October 14, 2012, 11:15 am

    Its amazing to see such good quality picture depicting such profound research. Congratulations for all the people who have made this happen and to bring such amazing wonderful king of the jungle picture into the limelight. People who love animal safaris and especially The Big Five and the African Savannah Cats always prefer to go to East Africa for such animal safaris but for now I am sure people will also love to visit Botswana‘s Okavango Delta to see these beautiful dangerous lions which can only bee seen in Botswana. If the Man Eaters of Tsavo made news.

    I guess the Okavango lions are just a step away. They are part of us as we are part of them.

    Lets love all to save all

  23. dukemakaveli
    kuwait
    October 13, 2012, 5:55 pm

    That make me wonder how the lion going make sex with this unusual maned lionesses, the whole world will think that lions turn to a gays.

  24. Charmane
    South Africa
    October 13, 2012, 11:16 am

    These are amazing photos, Over many, many years lionesses with manes and males without manes have been reported and lots of photos have been published – long before photoshop, I have also taken photos of a male without a mane in the Kruger National Park, approx 12 years ago, that photo is on my web site http://www.pantheraleo.co.za under the “mane” page. Over the years amazing photos were published in a magazine called “African Environment & Wildlife” (Not sure of the year and volume but I do have it somewhere should you need more info and if you can get your hands on a copy) Most were published during the 1990′s. I think they were taken in Kenya somewhere and if I recall there were two or three females, from the same pride, sporting the manes. Just one of those amazing things that happen in the wild. The male in my photo was taking a rest from his mating duties. He was also one of the largest, in height, males that ever stood next to my vehicle.

  25. jkscoot
    usa
    October 12, 2012, 6:47 pm

    this is National Geographic, not the Enquirer! Do you REALLY think National Geographic would allow a photoshopped photo into its magazine? They’re pretty credible and I’m sure they research their articles…

  26. binyam gebremichael
    ethiopia
    October 12, 2012, 9:58 am

    May be the principle of gender equality is also started in lions

  27. Jane Skeety Mcphee
    Norfolk, VA
    October 12, 2012, 9:41 am

    what was wrong with that semen

  28. Derk
    The Kingdom of The Netherlands
    October 12, 2012, 6:34 am

    I think this is a case of freemartinism (Lillie,1917). More clues may revealed it self if one looked at her internal genital tracts.

  29. mcflurry
    SA
    October 12, 2012, 4:41 am

    partyhardy01- u the idiot here, who cares if its photo shopped 1st of all, 2nd, this is something eunich which u dont see everyday, go back to Canada where u belong.

  30. ca
    cali
    October 11, 2012, 9:24 pm

    awesome!! :)

  31. rachel
    October 11, 2012, 7:38 pm

    Sam, it has a VAGINA therefore it is female.

  32. partyhardy01
    Canada
    October 11, 2012, 7:07 pm

    So much intelligence….we think….but u r missing some major points.

    A. The shot is photoshop
    B. The reference to instinct has not been made.
    C. You are all idiots.

  33. Angella-Dee
    London UK
    October 11, 2012, 6:05 pm

    ““Alternatively and perhaps more likely, the problem may have occurred during gestation if the fetus was exposed to increased levels of androgens etc…
    This is an accepted reason why human transsexuals exist too!

  34. Christine Dell'Amore
    October 11, 2012, 2:03 pm

    @DD: Here is an answer to your question from Luke Hunter:

    “Yes, they do. Smell is more useful to her pride mates than strange lions, for whom vision would be more important. Lions can doubtless recognize individuals from their smells, and this lioness’ smell is probably unusual- to her pride mates, perhaps she is just an odd-smelling female but it clearly doesn’t affect the fact that she is accepted.”

  35. YenYen
    October 11, 2012, 10:20 am

    I dont really care how it happened at all, All i know is it is very cool and amazing! Wildlife is so…..Unique.

  36. DD
    October 11, 2012, 8:21 am

    I’d imagine she’d only be perceived as male from afar. Don’t animals tell gender from smell, as well?

  37. Deri
    Didim, Turkey
    October 11, 2012, 7:08 am

    God hates lady lions with manes!

  38. Tamaresque
    t
    October 11, 2012, 3:48 am

    Or, alternatively (and Sam comes close to the mark here), there may have been some androgen-insensitivity during gestation in male fetuses which then failed to develop as male. They then appear as female externally, but still have some male characteristics. This would, as Sam notes above, make the creature intersex.

  39. Chieh Chen
    Michigan
    October 10, 2012, 10:51 pm

    It is androgens (male hormones) during *puberty* that is responsible for the the changes that leads to an adult male lion to look like one. Therefore, it is unlikely that perinatal (around birth) androgens *alone* can be responsible for this phenomenon mentioned. These lionesses most likely have elevated androgens throughout life capable of altering physical characteristics during puberty. A case very similar to this is that of the spotted hyenas. Female spotted hyenas evolved to have very high levels of androgens throughout life and have the physical appearance of males. Androgen increases aggression in these female hyenas, which is advantageous for survival, but the byproduct of a long penis-like urogenital canal is not ideal for parturition. The fact that high levels of androgens in these hyenas has been perpetuated through several generations despite the physical downfalls tells us that the positives outweigh the negatives. Going back to the lionesses, since several individuals have been seen with these masculine characteristics, it is highly probable that this is also a heritable trait that is adaptive and brings advantages worth passing on to next generations. The questions now is whether the mane is the main factor that brings advantages to the individual (if so, how?) or the byproduct of another more advantageous characteristic.

  40. Eric Simpson
    SoCal
    October 10, 2012, 7:40 pm

    Could this be a result of a decreasing gene pool? Seems to me that with decreasing populations and habitat, that breeding with close relatives would tend to amplify incidences of recessive genes being expressed, and, in the case of these masculinized female lions, an increase in aberrant sperm or androgen production.

  41. Sam
    October 10, 2012, 6:32 pm

    This isn’t a female for crying out loud, “written by a female”, this is one of those dismorphic cases, it is not male nor full female.., it’s sort of hermaphrodite or it may have the equivalent of XXY or XX with genetic precursors of male genitalia or androgen producing elements

  42. JDE
    Boston, MA
    October 10, 2012, 6:18 pm

    “Alternatively and perhaps more likely, the problem may have occurred during gestation if the fetus was exposed to increased levels of androgens— male hormones such as testosterone”

    No, no! It’s a lifestyle choice. They need a Bible-based rehab program!

  43. jam
    Vancouver
    October 10, 2012, 6:04 pm

    yet everyone is so uncomfortable rather than fasinated when things like this happen to humans — cases of intersex and transexual people.

  44. ompie
    c.a.
    October 10, 2012, 4:30 pm

    Fascinating

  45. BILLOO
    Karachi. Pakistan
    October 10, 2012, 2:33 pm

    More than 30 years, I watch wild life, this is astonishing
    are they truly female, or like human they are eunich

    Thanks for this wonderful pictures