For a very long time, we have been believing that there were two lion species surviving (the African lion and the Asiatic lion). The Asiatic lion was represented by this small group of lions in the Gir forest of India.
- Panthera leo leo (the African lion)
- Panthera leo persica (the Asiatic lion)
You have to admit that this was relatively well understood and scientists were discussing the differences between African populations of lions. Where there actual sub-species or independent populations of the same species.
Now, this is challenged very seriously by the most recent scientific studies (as usual in science, it’s still a bit early to settle this into the official theory; but it’s getting more interesting). Recent studies (mostly genetic ones) have shown that the Asiatic lions are more similar to East-Africa lions. And there are more differences than initially expected between African lions.
So, the latest proposal from the Cat Specialist Group (at the Species Survival Commission SSC of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)) is to define two species:
- Panthera leo leo (also called the Northern subspecies)
- Panthera leo melanochaita (the Southern subspecies)
This is a good example of science progress: New data forces to revise the existing understanding to integrate the old facts, the new facts into a better theory. In the case at hand, it is admitted that external physical characteristics and behaviors (and Asiatic lions and North-Eastern African lions are different from these points of view) would be less important to define species. In the past, genetic information was not available and scientists from the past had to rely on available information.
Source: A revised taxonomy of the Felidae, in CATnews Special Issue 11, Winter 2017.