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Zambia’s Lions Roam Areas Previously Believed to Be Uninhabitable

by Meilan Solly Smithsonian.com

Approximately 1,200 lions call Zambia—a U-shaped country in southeast Africa known for its abundant wildlife—home. These big cats, constituting one of the continent’s largest lion populations, live in two distinct groups separated by seemingly insurmountable barriers.

But new research suggests a small number of lions do, in fact, move across areas previously believed to be uninhabitable by the species. As researchers led by Caitlin J. Curry, a biologist at Texas A&M University, report in the journal PLoS ONE, these select felines then mate with members of other prides, ensuring high levels of genetic diversity throughout Zambia’s wider lion population.

According to a Conversation article written by Curry, the landlocked country’s lion subpopulations are divided between the Greater Kafue Ecosystem in the west and the Luangwa Valley Ecosystem in the east. Scientists have long believed that geographical and anthropogenic barriers, including different habitats and the presence of a large city lacking wildlife protection, prevent the groups from interacting, but as the new survey found, Zambia’s lions are not as isolated as one might think.

To assess the animals’ genetic diversity, the team extracted DNA from 409 lions, as represented by hair, skin, bone and tissue samples collected between 2004 and 2012.

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