A Bunch of Female Lions Have Turned Into Male Lions, Sort Of

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An everyday, gender-conforming lion.Photo: WLDavies/Getty Images

Sometimes, a headline says it all. Take it away, New Scientist: “Five Wild Lionesses Grow a Mane and Start Acting Like Males.”

It’s a really interesting story:

Five lionesses in Botswana have grown a mane and are showing male-like behaviours. One is even roaring and mounting other females.

Male lions are distinguished by their mane, which they use to attract females, and they roar to protect their territory or call upon members of their pride. Females lack a mane and are not as vocal.

But sometimes lionesses grow a mane and even behave a bit like males. However, until now, reports of such maned lionesses have been extremely rare and largely anecdotal. We knew they existed, but little about how they behave.

As New Scientist’s Karl Gruber explains, a research team led by Geoffrey D. Gilfillan of the University of Sussex in the U.K. has been observing the lionesses in their habitat at the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana. No one knows exactly what’s going on, but the researchers think these lionesses’ bodies are producing more testosterone than is normal for females. “In lions, testosterone directly affects the development of manes,” writes Gruber. “Castrated males, for example, lose their ability to produce testosterone and promptly lose their mane, too.”

If that’s true, these lionesses could be seen as having an intersex disorder. Some human women, after all, produce more testosterone than is normal for women, and as a result develop some stereotypically “manly” features. In the lionesses’ case, some of the behavioral differences were intense: One of them killed two cubs from a rival pride, for example. That’s usually a lion’s work, not a lioness’s. Testosterone can do some intense things.