London, Aug 13 (IANS) Lions in West and Central Africa form a unique group, only distantly related to lions in East and Southern Africa, researchers have discovered.
All African populations are currently classified as a single subspecies (Panthera leo leo), while the only remaining population in Asia is considered to be distinct (Panthera leo persica), the researchers pointed out.
In this study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the biologists gathered a genetic dataset of lion populations covering a total of 22 countries.
This included samples from each remaining lion population in West and Central Africa, a region where lions and other wildlife are rapidly declining as a consequence of the increasing human population.
Based on the genetic data, it was estimated that the split between the two major groups that can be identified in the lion must have occurred 300,000 years ago.
To explain what happened in their evolution, the researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands made a reconstruction of African climatological history.
It seems that periodic expansions of the rain forest and the desert drove lions into isolated pockets of suitable habitat, where the different genetic lineages originated that can still be observed today.
A general pattern is emerging that shows that many large African savannah mammals show very similar arrangements, with unique lineages in West and Central Africa, the study said.