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The lioness with a mane

Mmamoriri in all her glory. When this photo was published on National Geographic's website, it caused a fair amount of disbelief and accusations of PhotoShop fakery. I guarantee this is a real and unaltered photo!

Mombo Camp is situated on the Northwestern tip of Chiefs Island in the Okavango Delta. Perhaps due to the isolation of this area, surrounded on three sides by deep permanent swamps, and sometimes cut off to the south by the Simbira channel during the annual flood season, some strange anomalies crop up in the environment.

When I lived there about 10 years ago, there was a small pride of lions there called the Western Pride, consisting of seven individuals; five females, a sub-adult male, and a cub. What made this pride special is that one of the females, Mmamoriri, had a dark and full mane, making her appear to be a male. During the late 1990's, another lioness by the name of Martina also sported a beautiful, blonde mane, and Mmamoriri was most likely her descendant. It is unlikely that animals with this condition are able to breed, however, so other genetic factors must be at play in order for this to occur.

How this aberration comes about is unclear, but Dr. Luke Hunter, of the big cat conservation NGO Panthera, feels that this condition is most likely to originate either at conception or during foetal development in the womb, where it could be caused by either an abnormality in the sperm, which is integral to sex determination of the embryo, or where the female has an imbalance of androgens like testosterone during gestation, resulting in a female offspring having certain male characteristics, or vice-versa.

What makes this strange is that this is not an isolated aberration in this particular area. What this might point to is an anomaly not on the female side, as it is unlikely that individuals like this are able to breed, but from the male side, from whence the sexually deterministic genetic material originates. Zoologist Simon Dures has done a genetic survey of the lions on Chiefs Island and has surmised that they may be a distinct subgroup of the overall genetic population.

For Mmamoriri, her condition is a double-edged sword. Her appearance as a male gives her the intimidatory edge in conflicts against other lionesses and hyaena, for example, but when another male appears, however, she is targeted as a competitor. Although her mane makes her look like a male, she is a lot smaller in size and weight, and wouldn't stand a chance in physical combat with a male lion.

She has been seen by the guides at Mombo behaving in an altogether male fashion- attempting to mount one of the females in her pride. I witnessed her pride involved in a battle over a buffalo carcass with another, larger pride, the Mporota lions. Mmamoriri held ten other lionesses at bay for four hours with pure aggression and bravado- a situation that only changed with the arrival of the two Jao Boys, the males who dominate the Mporota pride. Once they were there, they immediately attacked her as a male usurper and she was forced to retreat.

She is long gone now, but who knows when this strange genetic throwback will once again emerge in the Jurassic wilderness of the Okavango?


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