I am prompted to this by a curious story about a reported lion in rural Essex. The sighting, which doesn't appear to be a deliberate hoax, was taken seriously enough to prompt a police operation, only called off in the last few hours.
[I am not referring in my title to the rugby 'team' of the same name. What could one say about an aggregation of players from four countries; England, Scotland and Wales - which only regard themselves as separate countries when it suits - plus an unequivocally sovereign nation in the Irish Republic? (Yes I do know about the odd situation of the Irish Football Union, but this is about natural history and we already have confusion enough.) It would be like Australia and New Zealand putting up a joint team called the Australasian Leopards, though actually there would be two problems with that. One is that it's currently doubtful if an Australian could get a guernsey, but the other is material to this posting.]
There were never leopards in Australia or New Zealand, but there certainly were lions native to Britain not so long ago. Cave Lions - bigger than modern African Lions, shaggy against the cold - roamed across northern Europe until the most recent glaciation, disappearing perhaps only 10,000 years ago. During this glaciation, and previous ones, Britain and Ireland were connected to continental Europe by lower sea levels. Evidence from mainland European cave paintings suggests that these lions lived in prides but may not have sported manes. Current thinking is that Cave Lions were the same species as living lions, Panthera leo, though they have also been called Panthera spelaea, giving them full species ranking. They also crossed the Bering Strait into North America, where a large long-legged lion developed.
|While one might assume that a lioness in Queen Elizabeth|
National Park was English, this one is in fact Ugandan.
Cave Lions would certainly have cohabited with early Brits; humans (ie of genus Homo, not necessarily Homo sapiens) have been in Britain for perhaps 800,000 years, though it seems that they came and went at least eight times as sea levels and temperatures rose and fell. The current continuous occupation phase started only 12,000 years ago, so it is quite likely that Stone Age British encampments shared something with a modern African game park - the thrilling vibrating nocturnal rumble of a male lion stating his claims. (They would not have shared the presence of a nice reassuring boundary fence though, which changes everything.)
In the end though, the people stayed and, for reasons unclear, the lions disappeared. Or did they? Is the Essex lion a swirl of the imagination, a most unusually large domestic cat (as claimed by some and emphatically rejected by the witnesses), or a Cave Lion that stepped through a wrinkle in time? For now it seems to be lion low. After all, as the Eagles explained, there ain't no way to hide those lion eyes.