England’s first lions extinct in their homeland

Press release - 25 January 2008

Genetic evidence now proves that Barbary lion bones found in the Tower of London hailed from north Africa, where no natural lion population remain today

Lion remains (Panthera leo) recovered from the moat around the Tower of London originated in northwest Africa, an area where lions no longer exist, according to researchers at London’s Natural History Museum and the University of Oxford.

They were the first lion remains discovered in England since the end of the last Ice Age, and research on the mitochondrial DNA of the two well preserved skulls 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.

Richard Sabin, Curator of Mammals at the Natural History Museum said, ‘Lions are very charismatic large cats that have been imported into Europe for various purposes since early historic times. We’ve not known, however, until now the exact geographical origin of the animals found in London.

Our results are the first genetic evidence to clearly confirm that lions found during excavations at the Tower of London originated in north Africa. Although we have one of the best mammal collections in the world here at the Natural History Museum, few physical remains survive of the Royal Menagerie.

Direct animal trade between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa was not developed until the eighteenth century, so our results provide new insights into the patterns of historic animal trafficking.’

The two skulls were recovered from the moat during excavations in 1936 and 1937, and were recently radiocarbon dated to AD 1280–1385 and AD 1420–1480, making them the earliest confirmed lion remains in the British Isles since the extinction of the Pleistocene cave lion.

The lions were members of the Royal Menagerie, established at the Tower of London in mediaeval times and served as a home of exotic animals until it was closed on behalf of the Duke of Wellington in 1835. 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.

Oxford University researcher Nobuyuki Yamaguchi explained, ‘According to historic records, a contiguous lion population 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.

Western north Africa was the nearest region to Europe to sustain lion populations until the early twentieth 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 twentieth century.’

Ends

Notes for editors

  • Selected by Time Out in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.
  • The Royal Menagerie was established in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by King John, in Woodstock near Oxford and later relocated to the Tower of London. The first three residents were three leopards sent to Henry III by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1235.
  • Lions were among the many exotic animals imported by the Romans throughout the days of the Roman Empire for their gladiatorial games. Increased scarcity of animals toward the end of the Empire forced combat shows to be replaced by exhibitions.
  • Ancient DNA Analysis Indicates the First English Lions Originated from North Africa is published in Contributions in Zoology 77 (1) 7 – 12.
Cartoon image of a hatchet fish on a museum pass

Until 1938 whale carcasses were buried in the Museum grounds so that their flesh would decay leaving only the skeletons.