How lion migrations affected their genetic variability


The information learned from a recent study can be used to enhance conservation efforts of the Panthera leo

Lion on a hill

Photo: Andrew Deer/Adobe Stock

Lions play a vital role in maintaining ecosystems through population control of the most dominant herbivore species. However, because of human disruption and fragmentation of lion habitats, large groups of this species only remain in parks in Southern Africa. Lions subspecies in other parts of the world and the African continent are either extinct or survive in very low numbers, with only approximately 400 lions currently in West Africa.

This growing concern for a species that is currently listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species has sprouted conservation efforts and a question of possible reintroduction. However, policy makers must consider an important species factor before any reintroduction attempts can occur: genetic variability (or lack thereof).1

A group of investigators from a variety of research institutions in Italy, Spain, and the UK sought to determine the genetic makeup of 2 groups of lions from 2 conservation sites. The sites were located in Zimbabwe and Zambia, in the central portion of southern Africa, to identify the modern lion genetic lineage. The investigators analyzed 17 specimens for the cytb gene—a mitochondrial gene tracing maternal ancestry that gives a better idea of the species’ lineage than rDNA, and is easier to use because of enhanced amplification, sequencing, and analysis2— and 7 microsatellite markers to look at genetic variability. The investigators then used the genetic analysis results to identify species haplogroups and calculated a revised molecular clock to show the genetics of the lion species evolution.1

From these results, the investigators were able to show the migration of multiple lion subspecies to various parts of the African continent and the globe. The investigators indicated that these migrations, which occurred largely because of human impact, created large physical distances between the different subspecies, isolating their gene pools. This isolation led to a reduction in genetic variability, not unlike the effects seen from human diasporas leading to amplification of specific genes. Some genetic peculiarities seen in certain groups made them genetically incompatible with others, indicating that moving lions from one location to another to improve population is not a solution to the problem.1

The genetic and relationship history learned from this study provided better classifications of species/subspecies and their lineages. This information can be used to enhance lion conservation efforts by improving reintroduction attempts with specific genetic variability and compatibility information.

Amanda Bean, BS, is a 2025 PharmD candidate who is studying veterinary pharmacy at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy in Storrs.


  1. Broggini C, Cavallini M, Vanetti I, Abell J, Binelli G, Lombardo G. From caves to the Savannah, the mitogenome history of modern lions (Panthera leo) and their ancestors. Int J Mol Sci. 2024;25(10):5193. doi:10.3390/ijms25105193
  2. Jagielski T, Gawor J, Bakuła Z, Decewicz P, Maciszewski K, Karnkowska A. cytb as a new genetic marker for differentiation of prototheca species. J Clin Microbiol. 2018;56(10):e00584-18. doi:10.1128/JCM.00584-18
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