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Urgent call for further breeding of the relic zoo population of the critically endangered Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo Linnaeus 1758)

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The Barbary lion became extinct in the wild around 1942. Since the end of the 19th century, a last purebred captive breeding stock existed at the court of Morocco. The rest of these animals became the core exhibition of the new Rabat Zoo after passing through repeated bottlenecks and possibly some introgression events by foreign lions. This study uses mitochondrial DNA sequencing data to clarify the relationship among these lions and their sub-Saharan and Asian relatives. We analysed mitochondrial cytochrome b sequences obtained from a sample from a Barbary lion descended from a young female of the Barbary lion breeding group at the Rabat Zoo and various other members of the genus Panthera. In our cytochrome-b-based phylogenetic tree, the North African Barbary lion, represented by a biopsy sample from the Neuwied Zoo, joins the Asian lion clade, although it is slightly different from its Asian sister group. However, it is clearly distinct from sub-Saharan lions and can be considered as a genetically defined phylogeographic group of its own. Molecular dating of the extant sub-Saharan and Asian lion groups shows that the split between North African Barbary lions and Asian lions must be considerably more recent than 74–203 kilo years ago.

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Fig. 1
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kilo years


kilo years ago


base pairs


before present


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This paper is dedicated to Professor Christian Pitra on the occasion of his 65th birthday, 29 April 2006. The authors wish to thank Heinrich Klein, director of the Neuwied Zoo, for providing the Barbary lion cub as an additional reference specimen. We are indebted to Robert Darga, Wilfried Rosendahl and Hugo Oberkofler for providing cave lion samples. We also wish to thank Sabine Hilsberg and Bert Geyer of the Zoo at Frankfurt am Main for providing Indian lion and leopard samples. Further, we thank Sabine Möller-Rieker for her assistance and Ursula Arndt for primer sequences. The authors declare that the experiments comply with the current laws of our country.

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Correspondence to Joachim Burger.

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Burger, J., Hemmer, H. Urgent call for further breeding of the relic zoo population of the critically endangered Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo Linnaeus 1758). Eur J Wildl Res 52, 54–58 (2006).

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