From Caves to the Savannah, the Mitogenome History of Modern Lions (Panthera leo) and Their Ancestors

Camilla Broggini, Marta Cavallini, Isabella Vanetti, Jackie Abell, Giorgio Binelli, Gianluca Lombardo

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Lions (Panthera leo) play a crucial ecological role in shaping and maintaining fragile ecosystems within Africa. Conservation efforts should focus on genetic variability within wild populations when considering reintroduction attempts. We studied two groups of lions from two conservation sites located in Zambia and Zimbabwe to determine their genetic make-up, information that is usually unknown to the sites. In this study, we analysed 17 specimens for cytb and seven microsatellite markers to ascertain family relationships and genetic diversity previously obtained by observational studies. We then produced a standardised haplogroup phylogeny using all available entire mitogenomes, as well as calculating a revised molecular clock. The modern lion lineage diverged ~151 kya and was divided into two subspecies, both containing three distinct haplogroups. We confirm that Panthera leo persica is not a subspecies, but rather a haplogroup of the northern P.l. leo that exited Africa at least ~31 kya. The progenitor to all lions existed ~1.2 Mya, possibly in SE Africa, and later exited Africa and split into the two cave lion lineages ~175 kya. Species demography is correlated to major climactic events. We now have a detailed phylogeny of lion evolution and an idea of their conservation status given the threat of climate change.
Original languageEnglish
Article number5193
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalInternational Journal of Molecular Sciences
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 10 May 2024


  • lion phylogeny
  • Panthera leo
  • Panthera atrox
  • Panthera spelaea mitogenome
  • big cat evolution
  • cave lion
  • molecular phylogeny
  • evolutionary biology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Psychology(all)
  • veterinary(all)


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