The Curious Case of Botswana’s Androgynous Lionesses

In my ongoing effort to bring back some stately British narration to documentaries about the African wilderness (I've also filmed and, shall we say, "dressed up" my cats as a panther and an ocelot, respectively, so I could build up a nice reel to send to Nat Geo, fingers crossed), we're going to take time out of the busy, anthronormative news cycle to visit the Mombo area of Botswana's Okavango Delta, where some lionesses have curiously been known to sprout manes. According to National Geographic, the maned lionesses may very likely be related to a safari favorite named Martina, who (because lions are people too) disappeared in 2002.

Luke Hunter, president of the big-cat conservation group Panthera, explained that a "masculine" lioness might be born with a mane (a distinctly dude-lion characteristic) when the embryo is disrupted, either at conception or while in the womb:

If the former case, the genetic contribution of the sperm-which determines the sex of the fetus in most mammals-was probably aberrant, giving rise to a female with some male characteristics. Alternatively and perhaps more likely, the problem may have occurred during gestation if the fetus was exposed to increased levels of androgens- male hormones such as testosterone.

Nat Geo's Christine Dell'Amore further explained that, if a mother lion has abnormally high levels of androgens during pregnancy, "her female offspring may end up ‘masculinized' — a situation that occurs occasionally in people but is rarely observed in wild animals." Since a ‘masculinized' lioness is such a rare natural phenomenon, observers like Hunter aren't quite sure whether the lioness Martina, for instance, would have behaved like a male. Although such a lioness would almost definitely be infertile, according to Hunter, she'd be totally capable of surviving, and actually might even be a boon to her pride, since interloping scavengers like hyenas would be extra dissuaded from snatching kills with the apparent presence of an extra male hanging around the wildebeest carcass. An enthusiastic Hunter also noted that maned lionesses could challenge unfamiliar males for dominance thanks to their wavy locks and big muscles:

Two similarly aberrant Serengeti lionesses were outwardly female-they did not have manes, but were almost male-sized, and they challenged and fought unfamiliar males for territories as though they were males!

Indeed, Mr. Hunter — nature is a rollicking good time, except for all the forlorn zebra colts and saucer-eyed antelopes that get caught in the ruthless jaws of the dreaded maned lioness.

Weird & Wild: Rare Maned Lionesses Explained [Nat Geo]