Why Do Lions Have Manes? The Reason Behind This Head of Hair

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 25th September 2023

Male Lions (Panthera leo) greeting. Ndutu region of Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, Africa
Two majestic lion’s with terrific manes / KenCanning via Istock

Lions are one of the largest big cats in the world.

Their manes are one of their most recognizable features, despite only males having them.

It may seem strange, but there have been some species of lions that lack their mane entirely. 

You may wonder why exactly lions grow manes, as it is not a feature seen often in other big cats like tigers, or leopards.

Let’s take a look at the strange head of hairs that lions showcase, and the reasons why they have manes.

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Why Do Lions Have Manes?

A Lion and its beautiful mane
A Lion and its beautiful mane | Amar Yashlaha via Unsplash

Male lions have manes since they are used to attract mates, and are a sign of their strength, and fertility.

Lions with larger and darker manes are preferred by female lions.

A good head of hair on a lion is a signal they are sexually fit.

Testosterone is what causes a male lion’s mane to grow, which is why younger lions or female lions lack them entirely.

A larger mane in a lion is also a sign they have more testosterone.

large adult male lion with black, brown and gray mane
The large adult male lion with black, brown and gray mane lie on the green meadow | Rizel_S via iStock

It was Charles Darwin who theorized that a lion’s mane was used as protection against fights with other lions.

The thick hair around their neck was once believed to protect their most vulnerable region from attacks from other lions.

This is not believed to be the case anymore. When seen fighting in the wild, lions typically attack each other on their back and hips.

While their large heads of hair may provide some protection from attacks, the lion’s mane is mainly used to signal strength and sexual readiness.

As lions get older their manes get dark, and a thick mane indicates they are being well-fed.

Disadvantages of a Lions Mane

Male lion with its tongue out
How do you like your mane? | Wade Lambert Via Unsplash

While a strong mane gives a male lion an advantage with females, there are some drawbacks to having such a large head of hair.

A large mane can make it difficult to get through tough vegetation, and plant life.

Living in extremely hot environments, a large mane can also cause a lion to overheat.

One of the main drawbacks of having a large mane is the energy it takes to grow and maintain.

A large mane is also the perfect breeding ground and home for parasites.

Lions Without Manes

Lion without mane
A lion without mane | Mgiganteus via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The male lion’s mane is one of its most iconic features, but there are some instances where a lion can lack its mane completely.

Lions that live in extremely hot habitats may delay their mane growth to keep themselves cool.

The long hair of a lion was originally thought to be a genetic feature, but studies show that their hair is reactive to the climate they live in.

Lion’s studies in captivity across North America showed the variations in a lion’s mane were due to climate, and not caused by its subspecies.

The thickness and length of a mane correlated with the climate they lived in, but the weather had nothing to do with its color.

The Tsavos Lions

Tsavos lions
The Most Infamous Types of Lions | MariusLtu via Getty Images

The Tsavos lions are one of the most infamous types of lions that have no manes.

These lions get their name from the region in Kenya they inhabited.

Males’ heightened testosterone, the extreme heat of the region, and the thorny vegetation are possible theories comprised to why these lion’s manes are small and underdeveloped.

Tsavos lions historically are represented by the Tsavo man-eaters, which was a pair of male lions that killed workers that contributed to the Uganda Railway in 1898.

These lions terrorized the Tsavos region of Kenya for around 9 months.

A man-eating Tsavo lion killed by Patterson
A man-eating Tsavo lion killed by Patterson | Field Museum via Wikipedia Public Domain

They had no manes, and their skulls are viewable in a museum, along with replicas of them.

The man-eating Tsvasos lions were studied not only because of their lack of a mane, but also to figure out the reason why they started eating humans.

Disease, tooth decay, and the lack of natural predators near them are some of the possibilities as to why these lions became hungry for men.

The mane-less Tsavos lions are estimated to have eaten around 28 to 135 people in their reign of terror.

Female Lions that Grow Manes

a young male and female lion
Female Lions can grow them too! | Daniel Smith via Getty Images

Manes are often associated with male lions, but on some rare occasions, females can grow them.

Maned lionesses, while rare, are a sight sometimes seen.

The manes that females grow are usually caused by a genetic condition, causing them to have higher testosterone levels.

Some female lions from the Botswana region in the wild have been documented as having manes.

Botswana lioness with a mane
Botswana lioness with a mane | Ashish Timba via GettyImages

Female lions with manes look similar to males. They also take on some of the characteristics of male lions, sometimes mounting other females.

The reported female lions found in Botswana with manes have not been pregnant, but the conservationists studying them suggest they are still capable of living long, and healthy lives.

A lioness with a mane has also occurred in captivity, with the most known occurrence being Zuri, who lived at Topeka Zoo in Kansas.

Zuri, the lioness with a mane
Zuri, the lioness with a mane | Image via My Modern Met

Right after the last male lion in the zoo passed away, the female lion started growing thick hair around her neck.

Zuris’s mane made her look like a young teenage lion, but health checks indicated she was perfectly healthy.

Being 18 years old, Zuri lived much longer than the average lion lifespan in the wild which is 12 to 16 years.

Her older age is believed to have contributed to hormonal imbalance, causing her to grow a mane.

Lions and Prides

A Lion's Pride
A Lion’s Pride | Cheryl Ramalho via Getty Images

In the wild, it is more common for male lions to fight each other, which is one of the reasons why the theory about manes being used as protection came to fruition.

Male lions fight each other for territory, and to defend their family from outside threats.

Male lions are the leader of their pride, and these family units contain between two to forty lions.

A lion’s pride is mostly made up of females and may have three to four males.

lions pride
A lion pride walking through the dry savanna | Anna-Carina Nagel via iStock

The main job of a male lion is to protect the females and young cubs. The leader of the pride defends from threats, and other lions trying to take over.

Having a strong mane helps a lion be more intimidating to other males.

Male lions must either take over a pride by fighting for dominance, or they will form their own group for protection.

A group of all male lions is called a coalition, and they are typically made up of 2 to 7 members, usually brothers or cousins.

When a male lion takes over a pride, they attempt to kill the offspring.

Male lions have a shorter lifespan than females, only living 8 to 10 years.

Lion Breeding and Lifespan

Young lions in Kenya
Lion Cubs in Kenya | David Clode via Unsplash

The large mane of a lion represents a stronger individual, making them more threatening to other lions, and more attractive to female mates.

Once a male lion takes over a pride, it must defend its territory, and family, but also get the right to breed.

Males do not have to fight for a mate once inside a pride, but chase around a fertile female, and wait for them to initiate.

Young lions do not reach sexual maturity until 26 months of age. 

lion cub
Cute lion cub sitting in the long grass | Philip Thurston via iStock

Females begin breeding at around 2 years of age and can have between 6 to 8 liters in their lifetime. Males rarely breed until around 4 years of age.

Male lions must earn the right to mate by attempting to join a pride.

At around 1 years old males begin to grow their mane, once they start to produce testosterone.

They typically leave the pride they are born into at around two or three years old, to find their own pride, and avoid being killed by the alpha male.

A strong mane will give them the edge, but they also must be physically dominant compared to other males.

If not strong enough to challenge for a pride, males wander alone, or with other males until they die.

Other Animals With Manes

Lion-Tailed Macaque
Lion-Tailed Macaque | Hung_Chung_Chih via Unsplash

While the lion’s mane is one of its most beloved features, other animals also have this trait.

Manes are a long and heavy growth of hair that appears around an animal’s neck and head.

Horses are also animals that have manes. A healthy diet allows horses to grow a longer, and thicker mane, and it can look similar to human hair.

A black horse with its mane
A black horse with its mane | Callipso via iStock

Not all manes are long, and some animals like the zebra or giraffe have manes that stick out the backside of their neck.

Here are a few other animals that can also rock a mane:

  • Camels
  • Maned Wolves
  • Lion-tailed Macaque
  • Wildebeests
  • Cheetahs
  • House Cats
  • Maned Three-toed Sloths
  • Golden Lion Tamarin
Large and majestic male lion (panthera leo) resting on a large rock
Large and majestic male lion (panthera leo) resting on a large rock | guenterguni via iStock

Lions are not the only animals that have manes, and these hairs come in many lengths and colors.

Some manes like that of the cheetah have a rough appearance and are very short.

Manes are useful for keeping warm in cold climates and are an indication of strength and health.


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