MadSci Network: General Biology

Re: Did lions ever live naturally in Britain

Date: Wed Jan 15 07:01:17 2003
Posted By: David Hubble, Consultant/Owner
Area of science: General Biology
ID: 1039661231.Gb

Hi Stuart

Lions as we now know them (Felis leo) never lived in Britain, although 
their evolutionary ancestors may have done. Lions are now famously found 
in subtropical Africa, although their natural range included North Africa, 
Asia (e.g. Iran, India) and in Roman times, even parts of Europe such as 
Greece (places then known as Thrace and Mecedonia). That was how Roman 
gladiatorial games were able to have lions in the arena when the Romans 
had not been to kenya or Tanzania!

However, although lions have never lived in Britain (you are right, it is 
too cold), the now extinct Cave Lion (Felis spelea) used to in prehistoric 
(e.g. Neanderthal) times and these were very similar to modern lions.

The reason that lions feature in British (and other European) heraldry is 
simply that knights in the early days of heraldry ransacked the animal 
kingdom for symbols that looked suitably distinctive and heroic. Hence, 
there are lots of lions, leopards, eagles, stags and boars on shields, but 
not very many mice, sparrows or tuna. The earliest known use of a heraldic 
lion was on the seal of Philip I, Duke of Flanders in 1164, and it was 
soon used in various forms by plenty of European royals. I guess the most 
famous in England is Richard I AKA Richard the Lionheart (who as a 
Plantagenet was basically French and rarely came to England), but the 
European royal families are very much intertwined, so similar heraldry 
appears all over the continent.

Anyway, I hope that's useful & interesting, if not much to do with biology!

Dr David Hubble, UK

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