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FEATURE ARTICLE

The Lion's Mane

Neither a token of royalty nor a shield for fighting, the mane is a signal of quality to mates and rivals, but one that comes with consequences

Peyton West

Figure 1. Manes are unique to lions...Click to Enlarge Image

Although Charles Darwin believed that the male lion's mane existed to blunt the attacks of other lions, its actual purpose long remained a mystery. However, 30 years of lion observations and some elegant new experiments have now created a comprehensive picture of its function. As explained by Peyton West, whose research in East Africa finally solved the puzzle of the mane's significance, lion manes are sexually selected traits that proclaim a male's fighting ability and nutritional status. Both opponents and mates take advantage of this information to assess a lion's overall fitness, but the long, black mane that females desire and males respect has a serious drawback in the form of heat stress. This consequence is severe enough that lions in the hottest climates have little or no mane at all, raising the possibility that increased global temperatures may cause lions with dark, luxurious manes to be things of the past.


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