Comparative skull analysis suggests species-specific captivity-related malformation in lions (Panthera leo)

Joseph Saragusty, Anat Shavit-Meyrav, Nobuyuki Yamaguchi, Rona Nadler, Tali Bdolah-Abram, Laura Gibeon, Thomas B. Hildebrandt, Merav H. Shamir

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19 Scopus citations


Lion (Panthera leo) populations have dramatically decreased worldwide with a surviving population estimated at 32,000 across the African savannah. Lions have been kept in captivity for centuries and, although they reproduce well, high rates of stillbirths as well as morbidity and mortality of neonate and young lions are reported. Many of these cases are associated with bone malformations, including foramen magnum (FM) stenosis and thickened tentorium cerebelli. The precise causes of these malformations and whether they are unique to captive lions remain unclear. To test whether captivity is associated with FM stenosis, we evaluated 575 lion skulls of wild (N = 512) and captive (N = 63) origin. Tiger skulls (N = 276; 56 captive, 220 wild) were measured for comparison. While no differences were found between males and females or between subadults and adults in FM height (FMH), FMH of captive lions (17.36±3.20 mm) was significantly smaller and with greater variability when compared to that in wild lions (19.77±2.11 mm). There was no difference between wild (18.47±1.26 mm) and captive (18.56±1.64 mm) tigers in FMH. Birth origin (wild vs. captive) as a factor for FMH remained significant in lions even after controlling for age and sex. Whereas only 20/473 wild lions (4.2%) had FMH equal to or smaller than the 5th percentile of the wild population (16.60 mm), this was evident in 40.4% (23/57) of captive lion skulls. Similar comparison for tigers found no differences between the captive and wild populations. Lions with FMH equal to or smaller than the 5th percentile had wider skulls with smaller cranial volume. Cranial volume remained smaller in both male and female captive lions when controlled for skull size. These findings suggest species- and captivity-related predisposition for the pathology in lions.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere94527
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
StatePublished - 9 Apr 2014


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