Tower of London lion origins revealed

25 March 2008

Lion remains found in the Tower of London come from north Africa, researchers at the Natural History Museum and University of Oxford reveal today.

The Barbary lion bones, recently carbon-dated to between AD 1280-1385 and AD 1420-1480, belonged to lions that originated in northwest Africa, an area that has no natural lion population left today.

England's earliest lions

This makes them the earliest confirmed lion remains in the British Isles after the extinction of the Pleistocene cave lion at the end of the last Ice Age.

Royal Menagerie

The lions were members of the Royal Menagerie, or zoo, established at the Tower of London in the 12th and 13th centuries. It was a home of exotic animals.

Genetic tests reveal origins

Big cats had been imported into Europe for different purposes since early historic times. The exact geographical origin of the Tower of London animals was unclear, until now.

Research on the mitochondrial DNA of the two well-preserved skulls and analysis of their jawbones revealed the lions shared unique genes with the north African Barbary lion. Comparison of the skulls with Asiatic and north African Barbary lion skulls kept in natural history collections in the UK and Europe allowed the team to further demonstrate the link.

'Our results are the first genetic evidence to clearly confirm that lions found during excavations at the Tower of London originated in north Africa,' says Richard Sabin, mammal expert at the Natural History Museum.

'Although we have one of the best mammal collections in the world here at the Museum, few physical remains survive of the Royal Menagerie. Direct animal trade between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa was not developed until the 18th Century, so our results provide new insights into the patterns of historic animal trafficking.'

Physical examination of the skulls also suggested both the lions were males, as they have longer skulls and larger canine teeth. The skulls are now part of the Natural History Museum's vast zoological collections.

Ancient lion distribution

Lions, Panthera leo, are members of the Felidae family and include the three other big cats in the genus Panthera , the tiger, jaguar and leopard. Lions are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species.

'According to historic records, lions could be found from north Africa and through the Middle East to India, until the growth of civilisations along the Egyptian Nile and Sinai Peninsula almost 4,000 years ago stopped gene flow, isolating the lion populations,' says Oxford University researcher Nobuyuki Yamaguchi.

'Western north Africa was the nearest region to Europe to sustain lion populations until the early 20th Century, making it an obvious and practical source for mediaeval merchants. Apart from a tiny population in northwest India, lions had been practically exterminated outside sub-Saharan Africa by the turn of the 20th Century.'

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