Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Revealing the maternal demographic history of Panthera leo using ancient DNA and a spatially explicit genealogical analysis

Ross Barnett19*, Nobuyuki Yamaguchi2, Beth Shapiro3, Simon YW Ho4, Ian Barnes5, Richard Sabin6, Lars Werdelin7, Jacques Cuisin8 and Greger Larson1

Author Affiliations

1 Durham Evolution and Ancient DNA, Department of Archaeology, Durham University, Durham DH1 3LE, UK

2 Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Qatar University, Doha, Qatar

3 Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USA

4 School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia

5 School of Biological Sciences, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX, UK

6 Department of Life Science, Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK

7 Department of Palaeobiology, Swedish Museum of Natural History, Box 50007, Stockholm SE-10405, Sweden

8 Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, 54 Rue Cuvier, Paris 75005, France

9 Current Address: Centre for GeoGenetics, København Universitet, The Natural History Museum Øster Voldgade, Copenhagen 5-7 DK-1350, Denmark

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:70  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-70

Published: 2 April 2014



Understanding the demographic history of a population is critical to conservation and to our broader understanding of evolutionary processes. For many tropical large mammals, however, this aim is confounded by the absence of fossil material and by the misleading signal obtained from genetic data of recently fragmented and isolated populations. This is particularly true for the lion which as a consequence of millennia of human persecution, has large gaps in its natural distribution and several recently extinct populations.


We sequenced mitochondrial DNA from museum-preserved individuals, including the extinct Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo) and Iranian lion (P. l. persica), as well as lions from West and Central Africa. We added these to a broader sample of lion sequences, resulting in a data set spanning the historical range of lions. Our Bayesian phylogeographical analyses provide evidence for highly supported, reciprocally monophyletic lion clades. Using a molecular clock, we estimated that recent lion lineages began to diverge in the Late Pleistocene. Expanding equatorial rainforest probably separated lions in South and East Africa from other populations. West African lions then expanded into Central Africa during periods of rainforest contraction. Lastly, we found evidence of two separate incursions into Asia from North Africa, first into India and later into the Middle East.


We have identified deep, well-supported splits within the mitochondrial phylogeny of African lions, arguing for recognition of some regional populations as worthy of independent conservation. More morphological and nuclear DNA data are now needed to test these subdivisions.

Barbary lion; Panthera leo; Extinction; Mitochondrial DNA; Ancient DNA; Phylogeography