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We use ecological niche models and environmental stratification of palaeoclimate to reconstruct the changing range of the lion (Panthera leo) during the late Pleistocene and Holocene. The modern (early 21st century) range of the lion extends from southern Africa to the western Indian Subcontinent, yet through the 20th century this range has been drastically reduced in extent and become increasingly fragmented as a result of human impacts. We use Global Environmental Stratification with MaxEnt ecological niche models to map environmental suitability of the lion under current and palaeoclimatic scenarios. By examining modelled lion range in terms of categorical environmental strata, we characterise suitable bioclimatic conditions for the lion in a descriptive manner. We find that lion habitat suitability has reduced throughout the Holocene, controlled by pluvial/interpluvial cycles. The aridification of the Sahara  6ka dramatically reduced lion range throughout North Africa. The association of Saharan aridification with the development of pastoralism and the growth of sedentary communities, who practised animal husbandry, would have placed additional and lasting anthropogenic pressures on the lion. This research highlights the need to integrate the full effects of the fluctuating vegetation and desiccation of the Sahara into palaeoclimatic models, and provides a starting point for further continental-scale analyses of shifting faunal ranges through North Africa and the Near East during the Holocene. This scale of ecological niche modelling does not explain the current pattern of genetic variation in the lion, and we conclude that narrow but substantial physical barriers, such as rivers, have likely played a major role in population vicariance throughout the Late Pleistocene. ©2021 Cooper et al.


David M Cooper, Andrew J Dugmore, Andrew C Kitchener, Marc J Metzger, Antonio Trabucco. A kingdom in decline: Holocene range contraction of the lion (Panthera leo) modelled with global environmental stratification. PeerJ. 2021;9:e10504

PMID: 33628628

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