Modern day lion's ancestor lived 124,000 years ago
A genetic analysis of living lions and museum specimens has found that the modern day lions' most recent common ancestor lived around 124,000 years ago.
Modern lions evolved into two groups; one lives in Eastern and Southern Africa, the other includes lions in Central and West Africa, and in India.
This second group is now endangered, meaning half the genetic diversity of modern lions is at risk of extinction.
Unravelling the history of the lion has been difficult. Animals living in tropical areas tend to leave fewer fossilised remains behind.
So an international team of scientists turned to the ancient DNA within lion specimens held in collections and museums around the world.
Led by Dr Ross Barnett of Durham University, UK, the team sequenced mitochondrial DNA from museum-held specimens, including from different subspecies, including the extinct Barbary lion of North Africa, the extinct Iranian lion, and lions from Central and West Africa, the BBC reported.
The researchers compared these with genetic sequences drawn from other lions living in Asia, and across other parts of Africa, and then worked out how the different subspecies of lion evolved.
The study revealed that the single species of lion that persists today, Panthera leo, first appeared in Eastern-Southern Africa, supporting the conclusions of earlier research.
Around 124,000 years ago, in the Late Pleistocene, different subspecies began to evolve.
Around that time, tropical rainforests expanded across equatorial Africa, and the Sahara region turned to savannah.
Lions living in the south and east of the continent became separated from, and began to diverge from, those living in the west and north.
The genetic differences between these two groups of lions remain today.
The findings are published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.
(Posted on 02-04-2014)