Genomic analysis supports Cape Lion population connectivity prior to colonial eradication and extinction

A de Flamingh, T P Gnoske, A G Rivera-Colón, V A Simeonovski, J C Kerbis Peterhans, N Yamaguchi, K E Witt, J Catchen, A L Roca, R S Malhi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cape lions (Panthera leo melanochaitus) formerly ranged throughout the grassland plains of the “Cape Flats” in what is today known as the Western Cape Province, South Africa. Cape lions were likely eradicated because of overhunting and habitat loss after European colonization. European naturalists originally described Cape lions as “black-maned lions” and claimed that they were phenotypically distinct. However, other depictions and historical descriptions of lions from the Cape report mixed or light coloration and without black or extensively developed manes. These findings suggest that, rather than forming a distinct population, Cape lions may have had phenotypic and genotypic variation similar to other African lions. Here we investigate Cape lion genome characteristics, population dynamics, and genetic distinctiveness prior to their extinction. We generated genomic data from 2 historic Cape lions to compare to 118 existing high-coverage mitogenomes, and low-coverage nuclear genomes of 53 lions from 13 African countries. We show that, before their eradication, lions from the Cape Flats had diverse mitogenomes and nuclear genomes that clustered with lions from both southern and eastern Africa. Cape lions had high genome-wide heterozygosity and low inbreeding coefficients, indicating that populations in the Cape Flats went extinct so rapidly that genomic effects associated with long-term small population size and isolation were not detectable. Our findings do not support the characterization of Cape lions as phylogeographically distinct, as originally put forth by some European naturalists, and illustrates how alternative knowledge systems, for example, Indigenous perspectives, could potentially further inform interpretations of species histories.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberesad081
Pages (from-to)155-165
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Heredity
Issue number2
Early online dateDec 27 2023
StatePublished - Mar 1 2024


  • ancient DNA
  • Panthera leo melanochaitus
  • Indigenous knowledge
  • South Africa
  • phylogeography
  • mitogenome

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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