It's not every day that a new species of lion is discovered, but exciting new DNA evidence collected by a team of researchers in Ethiopia has proven there is more than just one king of the jungle, reports Wildlife Extra News.

 

Some lion populations in Ethiopia have long been noted for their unusually large, dark, flowing manes, but biologists have always assumed these traits to be mere regional variations, not necessarily distinctive of a separate species. But according to DNA samples recently taken from lions at Ethiopia's Addis Ababa Zoo, the lions represent a genetically isolated population, distinct from all other lion populations in both Africa and Asia.

 

The Addis Ababa males' extravagant manes typically extend from the head, neck and chest all the way to the belly. Their thick locks and the darker coloration make them appear quite large, but they're actually smaller and more compact than most other lions.

 

The 15 lions tested for the study, which includes eight males and seven females, are descended from seven founder lions originally captured in southwestern Ethiopia in 1948 for the opening of the zoo. Unfortunately, lion population numbers have plummeted across Ethiopia since then, as only a few hundred lions, wild or captive, are thought to exist in the country. It's therefore possible that the lions harbored at the Addis Ababa Zoo are the last of their kind. For this reason especially, researchers have lobbied to get the Addis Ababa lions recognized as a vulnerable species, so that conservation action can be sanctioned. A captive breeding program is already under way.

 

Although these lions' manes are their most unique characteristic, it's unclear whether the manes can be effectively used as a general way of identifying the species. In other words, it's impossible to know exactly how widespread this lion species is in the wild, or even if any wild populations still exist, without further genetic research. Unfortunately, those beautiful manes, if they are representative of the species, could have been the population's undoing in the wild: poachers would probably be more likely to target them due to their locks.

 

There is a ray of hope, however. Lions with a similar appearance to those at Addis Ababa have been spotted roaming around an elephant sanctuary elsewhere in the country. Researchers are focusing on these populations for further research.

 

"A key question is which wild population did the zoo lions originate from and whether this wild population still exists; this would obviously make it a priority for conservation," said professor Michi Hofreiter of the Department of Biology at the University of York. "What is clear is that these lions did not originate in the zoo, but come from somewhere in the wild — but not from any of the populations for which comparative data is available."

 

Editor's note: We have temporarily removed the previously included video.

 

Related on MNN: 11 animals that mate for life