Scientists discover an almost unbelievable number of new species each year. In 2011 alone, 19,232 were brought to light, 72.3% of which were invertebrates like insects, 11.5% of which were plants. Then came fungi (7.1%) and microbes (5.8%). Chordata, a phylum which includes mammals but also fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds, made up just 3.3% of new discoveries. The point being, large mammal species are rarely discovered. Uncovering a new species of wild cat believed by some to be so rare as to be nearly extinct—that’s a discovery.
And scientists from University of York, UK, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany, have done just that. By comparing the DNA of 15 lions from the Addis Ababa Zoo in Ethiopia to that of six distinct types of lions found in the wild, the team discovered that the zoo lions—long noted for their dark manes—were a genetically distinct species.
Scientists have long noticed physical distinctions between wild lions and those at Addis Ababa, which have smaller, compact bodies and dark manes that “extend from the head, neck, chest and belly.” While some specialists believe that that hunters have killed off the newly discovered breed from the wild entirely, according to Wildlife Extra, “Ethiopian authorities (believe) lions with a similar appearance to those at Addis Ababa Zoo still exist in the east and north-east of the country, notably in the Babille Elephant Sanctuary near Harar and southwards to Hararghe.”
Researchers are suggesting immediate conservation efforts including captive breeding to help save the new species. Of the few hundred lions believed to still exist in Ethiopia, 20 are kept in the Addis Ababa Zoo. These descended from lions owned by Ethiopia’s late emperor, Rastafarian idol Haile Selassie, who started the zoo in 1948 with seven founder lions.