Barbary lions were part of medieval Tower of London zoo

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  1. By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

    Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 25/03/2008





    Two medieval skulls found in the Tower of London belonged to a kind of lion that boasted a giant dark mane, according to a genetic study that sheds new light on one of the world's oldest zoos.

    Infamous as a place of torture and executions, and home to the Crown Jewels, the Tower was also home to lions, which were charismatic symbols of monarchy.
    Now researchers have used DNA evidence to analyse two members of the royal menagerie, the oldest being late 13th to late 14th century (1280-1385) and 'youngest' 15th century (1420-1480), the only medieval big cat remains found in England.
    They conclude that they were male Barbary lions, a species that hails from north Africa, where no natural lion population remains today.

    Lion manes can vary from light blond to black and can be up to a foot long. But the Barbary, a subspecies extinct in the wild, had a magnificently regal mane, their equivalent of the Peacock's tail that they used to turn on lionesses.


    They were members of the royal "zoo", which survived for more than 600 years after being founded by King John (1199 to 1216) and the lions are a sign that the UK enjoyed good relations with foreign monarchs, who presented exotic animals as gifts.

    The new study in the journal Contributions in Zoology provides important information on some of the earliest lions seen in northern Europe since European lions became extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, some 14,000 to 11,000 years ago.

    Remains from the moat, excavated in the 1930s, were analysed by the Natural History Museum and the University of Oxford, focusing on a type of genetic material that is passed from lioness to cub, called mitochondrial DNA.

    The DNA in the skulls revealed the lions shared unique genes with the north African Barbary lion. Richard Sabin, Curator of Mammals at the museum says, "Our results are the first genetic evidence to clearly confirm that lions found during excavations at the Tower of London originated in north Africa.

    "Although we have one of the best mammal collections in the world here at the Natural History Museum, few physical remains survive of the Royal Menagerie.
    "Direct animal trade between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa was not developed until the eighteenth century, so our results provide new insights into the patterns of historic animal trafficking.'

    Oxford researcher Nobuyuki Yamaguchi adds, 'Western north Africa was the nearest region to Europe to sustain lion populations until the early twentieth century, making it an obvious and practical source for mediaeval merchants. Apart from a tiny population in northwest India, lions had been practically exterminated outside sub-Saharan Africa by the turn of the twentieth century.'

    Both the lions were males, as they have longer skulls and larger canine teeth than females, and three to four years old. The skulls are now part of the Natural History Museum's vast collections.

    The Royal Menagerie was established in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by King John, in Woodstock near Oxford and later relocated to the Tower of London.
    Among the first residents were three leopards sent to Henry III by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1235. The earliest written record of an English lion occurs in 1240. It refers to the upkeep of "the King's lion." Radiocarbon dating of the skulls of the two lions and a leopard in earlier work supported historic documents.

    Though few physical traces of the menagerie remain, experts have previously pointed to written records of a semi-circular structure built by King Edward I in 1277 in an area that later became known as the Lion Tower. Excavations in 1999 revealed that one lion cage measured just 6.5 feet by 10 feet.

    "The last known Barbary Lion in the wild was shot in 1942 on the northern side of the Tizi-n-Tichka pass in the Atlas Mountains, near the road between Marrakech and Ouarzazat, two of major tourists destinations in Morocco today," says Dr Yamaguchi.
    "The Barbary lion was believed to be extinct in captivity as well. However, possible Barbary lion descendants that can be traced back to the Royal Lion Collection of the King of Morocco, have been located in zoos and circus populations within the last three decades. "

    Although a recent study carried out at Oxford suggests that those "Moroccan King's lions" are unlikely to be pure Barbary lions on the maternal side, a firm conclusion needs to wait for further advances in DNA techniques for revealing their paternal lines.

    "Someday, once again, we may see a big dark maned lion in the snow-capped Atlas backdrop, and listen to their roars filling the valleys with echoes, as was once described by 19th Century travellers," adds Dr Yamaguchi.

    (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?view=DETAILS&grid=&xml=/earth/2008/03/25/scilion125.xml)
     

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  2. interesting history adn zoology,,,:yes:
     
  3. oh how magnificent are barbary lions!!! :love: wish they weren't extinct...

    interesting bit about morocco tho.. who would've thought that these magnificent creatures could have hailed from that environment?
     
  4. Fascinating read...thanks for posting!

    I'd really like to see a barbary lion one day...