Monday, 5 October 2015

Maneless Lions Of Tsavo Eventually Do Grow Manes

Maneless Lion and a Lioness side by side in Tsavo East National Park

With crimson sunsets, red elephants and contrasting landscapes, Tsavo East National Park is one of the few parks in Kenya that still remains utterly wild and does not fall short of wildlife variety and uniqueness. Adding to a long list of "why should i visit Tsavo?" one of the top reasons to visit this park is to search for the reputed Maneless Lions. 

As the name suggests, the adult and sub adult male lions here do not have thick black hairy manes similar those found at the Masai Mara, instead, Tsavo lions only have a little mohawk or at times they just have no mane at all. While a Male lion in the Masai Mara starts developing its mane from two to three years of age, a tsavo lion of similar age would remain maneless.

Among the different theories suggesting Tsavo Lion baldness, here are some of the most common explanations :-

1. Tsavo Climate: With average temperatures of about 30 degrees centigrade during the day, hair growth is possibly restricted as a fuller heavier mane would cause the lion to retain too much body heat.

2. Tsavo East Terrain: A different theory suggests that manelessness occurs in these lions as part of an adaptation to the sparse and thorny vegetation of the Tsavo terrain. A large mane would quite likely get caught or tangled in the bushy thorns.
A large mane would also be disadvantageous as it would stand out quite significantly hence hindering this predators success rate in hunting. 

3. Hormones: Some tests have indicated that Tsavo males have higher levels of testosterone compared to lions found in other national parks, so this could be a likely explanation regarding their baldness.
Having such increased testosterone levels would also explain these lions reputation for being more aggressive, short tempered and for having an active role during hunting. 

The above three reasons have been the most accepted as possible suggestions for these lions manelessness.

A maneless lion in Tsavo walks among females 

Since the number of maneless lions has been on the rise, i also began to have suspicions that the gene pool of the lion population in Tsavo East area possibly carries more chromosomes that cause this baldness. With Tsavo East and West being divided by a railway, a busy highway and new intense urban development now coming up quickly, its possible that the cross border migration of lions has been hindered between Tsavo East and Tsavo West. The Lions of Tsavo West generally have fuller manes and since we have recently been spotting more maneless lions in Tsavo East, its quite possible that inbreeding has been heightened so more of these baldness related chromosomes have been prolifically passed down. That's my two cents...

However, i would now like to add a twist to this theory of manelessless in Tsavo lions...
Maneless lions of Tsavo eventually do grow manes, and i have observed this first hand in two instances.

1. Having monitored a number of lion prides in Tsavo East and Ngutuni for several years now, i have seen the little male cubs mature into adolescents and finally upon reaching their late middle age, have seen their mowhawk manes eventually start growing to become much fuller, heavier and much thicker.

2. The second instance was when a maneless lion had been translocated to a colder climate. A lion that had been moved from Tsavo Ngutuni and who is now in Nairobi eventually started growing a full thick mane within a few months. His sibling of the same age that remains in Ngutuni is still maneless.

The above two points can hence summarize that manelessness in these lions is possibly only temporary. If environmental / climactic conditions are adjusted, their manes begin to change as well.  And once a residing Tsavo males reach a certain age (approximately 9 years) their manes start to develop more fully.

A Tsavo Ngutuni lion with his full mane

So this remarkable observation has now got me asking more questions. The main one being ... WHY? 
Why is the growth of a full mane deferred to these lions later years, Why does the mane suddenly grow when environmental conditions are changed? Why are there more maneless lions in Tsavo East then in Tsavo West or Amboseli?

To get to the root of these questions, iv actually started exploring just that... Plant roots, and to be more specific, the tsavo soil.

Male and female lions rest on the deep red Tsavo Soil.

In the interest of keeping a long story short here is my developing theory. There is nothing more identifiable about Tsavo East than its brilliant red coloured earth. The redness of this soil is derived from its richness in Iron Oxide.

An increased intake of iron in ones daily diet is said to increase testosterone levels, and so it is quite possible that the richness of iron oxide in Tsavo's soil is responsible in part for this manelessness in lions. Unusually high levels of iron is being ingested daily by the lions in two ways:

1. Herbivores are feeding on plants that are richer in iron and these minerals are then being passed on to the lions along the food web, and

2. The lions and its prey drink from ground waterholes which are richly diluted in iron.

So is this high iron intake ultimately responsible for the tsavo lion being maneless? Do changes in the animals body metabolism occur once they pass 9 years of age such that their manes begin to grow, If a maneless lion was moved from Tsavo East to another park of similar temperature would his mane begin to grow earlier due to reduction in iron intake?

One thing remains certain, i shall keep enjoying observing our remarkable maneless lions of Tsavo and possibly in time, come up with the answer.

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