Research Article: Linkage between fecal androgen and glucocorticoid metabolites, spermaturia, body weight and onset of puberty in male African lions (Panthera leo)

Date Published: July 3, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Sarah B. Putman, Janine L. Brown, Craig Saffoe, Ashley D. Franklin, Budhan S. Pukazhenthi, Govindhaswamy Umapathy.


There is limited physiological information on onset of puberty in male lions. The aim of this study was to use longitudinal non-invasive monitoring to: 1) assess changes in steroid metabolite excretory patterns as a function of age and body weight; 2) determine correlations between fecal androgen (FAM) and glucocorticoid (FGM) metabolite concentrations; and 3) confirm spermiogenesis non-invasively through urinalysis. Specifically, FAM and FGM metabolites were analyzed in samples collected twice weekly from 21 male lions at 17 institutions (0.9–16 years of age) for 3.8 months– 2.5 years to assess longitudinal hormone patterns. In addition, body weights were obtained approximately monthly from 10 individuals at five zoos (0.0–3.0 years), and urine was collected from six males at two facilities (1.2–6.3 years) and evaluated for the presence of spermatozoa. An increase in overall mean FAM occurred at 2.0 years of age, at which point concentrations remained similar throughout adulthood. The onset of puberty occurred earlier in captive-born males (<1.2 years of age) compared to wild-born counterparts (<2.5 years of age). Additionally, males in captivity gained an average of 7.3 kg/month compared to 3.9 kg/month for wild males over the first 2–2.5 years of age. Sperm (spermaturia) was observed in males as young as 1.2 years in captivity compared to 2.5 years in the wild (ejaculates). There was no difference in FAM or FGM concentrations with regards to age or season. Overall, this study demonstrates that: 1) captive male lions attain puberty at an earlier age than wild counterparts; 2) onset of puberty is influenced by body weight (growth rate); and 3) spermiogenesis can be confirmed via urinalysis. Knowledge about the linkage between body weight and onset of puberty could facilitate improved reproductive management of ex situ populations via mitigating the risk of unintended breedings in young animals.

Partial Text

African lions (Panthera leo) have been kept in menageries and for public display since the Roman Era, and in the 21st century an estimated 750 lions were maintained in captivity globally [1]. Lions historically have bred well in captivity compared to other felids [2–6], limiting the incentive for conducting biological research. Most studies are based on behavioral observations of wild lions [7,8]; few included biological data [9–11]. Consequently, little is known about longitudinal gonadal and adrenal hormonal patterns or how they are associated with the onset of puberty in male lions.

This study represents the first analysis of longitudinal FAM and FGM patterns in male African lions utilizing a non-invasive approach, identifying the influence of age on testicular and adrenal steroidogenic activity. Urinalysis for spermatozoa presence also proved to be a novel, non-invasive method for determining puberty onset in young lions. Overall results indicate that captive lions are maturing faster than wild counterparts, which was related to differences in growth rates during the first few years of life. These data provide fundamental information regarding male lion gonadal and adrenal function, and how it relates to age and reproductive capacity that can be used by the Lion Species Survival Plan (SSP) and animal care staff to improve captive animal management.