Lion Anatomy- The Eye

A lions eyesight is arguably their most important sense. Along with a highly developed sense of smell and incredible hearing, these apex predators have a big advantage over most of their prey. Their eyesight, all though no better than ours during the day is far superior at night, lions are said to be able to see eight times better than us in the dark.

Lions see mainly in blue and greens, with highly developed night vision. This doesn’t mean they can see in the dark, if it where pitch black a lion would be blind as well. The way a lions eye is designed helps them pick up and amplify very faint light such as the that emitted from stars and the moon.

Their eyes are able to enhance this faint light through a number of methods-

Inside the eye-

    • There are more rod cells than cone cells in the retina of the eye. These are photoreceptor (light-sensetive) cells, cone cells being colour sensitive and rod cells are light-sensitive. Lions having more light sensitive cells packed tightly in the fovea (most sensitive area of the retina), this means they only need 1/6th of the light that humans need to see in.
      Eye Shine, created by the reflective layer at the back of the eye.
    • Lions have what is known as a Tapetum lucidum, this is a reflective layer of cells positioned behind the retina. This means that light entering the eye will be absorbed by either the rod or cone cells, light that passes through the retina and the photoreceptor cells is reflected back by the Tapitum lucidum and the light-sensitive cells have a second chance to absorb the light waves, in effect doubling the effectiveness of their night vision. This reflective layer results in the eerie ‘eye shine’ that you see when you shine a light on animals at night. Most animals have this layer to a varying degree, but one animal I have noticed doesn’t have eye shine is the rhino.

Outside the Eye-

This photograph shows the white patches under lion eyes, reflecting faint light into the eye enhancing night vision.
  • Sounds strange but the outside characteristics of a lions face enhance their night vision. The white strips under their eyes reflect faint light into the eyes, maximising the amount of light entering the eye.  This characteristic is a good indication that this animal is nocturnal, if you look at cheetah eyes the opposite is true. Cheetah have black tear marks reducing the glare, while they are hunting in the daylight hours. Much like the way an American Footballer puts black face paint under their eyes.
Looking closely at the cheetahs face you will notice the black tear marks under the eye, helping reduce gland.

To sum up human senses are very different to animals relying mostly on our large brain to get us through life. Our eyesight and our hearing is fairly good while our sense of smell is very weak compared to most animals. Being humans our perception of the world around us is very narrow and it is very hard for us to imagine anything over and above what we can sense and see. For instance many snakes have heat sensitive receptors on their face, giving them a thermal image of their surroundings. Many birds can also see Ultra-Violet lightwaves, but that is a whole different story.


About danielpeel

Daniel Peel I was born in Zimbabwe, and grew up on a cattle farm. I then moved to England to complete my secondary education, after which I moved back to Africa to become a field guide, in South Africa. I have two years experience working as a trails guide, in the Klaserie Private nature reserve, in the Lowveld. Leading guided walks as well as game drives in a big five area. I have completed a field guides training course at Entabeni Nature guides training. As well as working in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, with Shearwater Elephant Back Safari. I am also a keen wildlife photographer and even sell my photographs on stock photo websites. My qualifications include: -FGASA level 2 -FGASA trails guide -First Aid(level 2) -Advanced rifle handling (ARH) -SEASETA or Poslec rifle compency -Cybertracker level 1 -Snake handling -Entabeni survival training I am passionate about the african bush and am eager and enthusiastic about sharing my knowledge and experiences as well as intrepreting animal behaviour and tracks and signs to international guests. As a walking guide the focus is more on the things often over looked in the bush, such as the tracks and signs of animals, trees and flowers, birds as well as the dangerous game. Which is also one of my passions, viewing dangerous game on foot. I also really support conservation, being a member of the Save the Rhino program.
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14 Responses to Lion Anatomy- The Eye

  1. Mel Churcher says:

    I was brought up in Africa & told that leopards have green eyeshine and lions red, but I’m beginning to think this is a myth. Can you tell me your observations? Thank you


    • danielpeel says:

      Hi Mel
      Thanks for the comment. Yes I have heard that different animals have diferent colour eyeshine. In my experience this is not so, it just depends on the angle you catch the animal. The only animal that I know of that has a constant colour is a Bushbaby, I have heard this is because of the size of the pupil. Obiviously bushbabies have huge eyes to maximise night vision and because the eye is so big there has to be a huge amount of blood in the eye, to feed the photoreceptor cells with oxygen. This is why they appear red. But as I say the other animals it just depends on the angle.

      Thank you
      If you have anymore questions please don’t hesitate to ask!


      • Mel Churcher says:

        Thank you very much. That is certainly true of my observations of domestic animals. So if I am ever back in the bush, I shall not rely on eyeshine to identify creatures. In the early 50’s my father was tracked in Nyasaland (Malawi now) by what he thought (&probably was) leopard. The following night he thought it was back, but when he shone his torch – it was 2 fireflies winking on the side of his tent! Thanks again for the swift response!


      • margie ferguson says:

        Hello, You were referred to us by Rae of lion alert. My daughter adores lions and is doing a paper on them. Can you tell us if lions are as flexible as house cats? Do they have body parts different from house cats that enable them to do things? Different structure of attachment of structures? Have you seen lions do things house cats can’t-besides take down a zebra:) Any info you can give us is helpful. Thank you so much. Margie


      • danielpeel says:

        Hi Margie
        Thanks for the questions, Lions are incredible and your daughter has made a good choice in doing a paper on them.
        As for differences between lions and house cats, that is a hard question, there are so many things to cover. The main thing is what the animal is designed for. House cats, being domesticated have lost the need to survive on their own. Many can and often do hunt, and can survive without human interference. But through centuries of domestication house cats have lost their ‘niche’ in the wild, and so there are so many different ‘types’ of house cat, some more capable than others.
        Lions being wild have to be at the ‘top of their game’ otherwise they won’t survive. This is Evolution, and has meant that lions, leopards, cheetahs, wildcats, caracals and servals (all cats surviving, often side by side in the african bush) have found and thrive in their own ‘niche’ or area of expertise.
        Let us focus on the big cats of africa- Lion, Leopard and Cheetah. Their ‘niches’ are more obvious.
        Lets start with Lions- They are the only sociable cats, living in prides. Living in prides and their size means they are more suited to take down larger game, wildebeest, zebra, buffalo etc.
        Leopards are smaller than Lions and are solitary. They focus their attention on small to medium sized game such as impala.
        We then get to Cheetah, same basic size as leopards, but designed completely differently, they too go for medium sized game.

        Ok we have covered What food the big cats eat, we need to look at their hunting techniques to really understand how and why cat anatomy differs. A pride of lions will hunt together, and work as a team. Their technique is stalking and a short chase, often pushing prey into a ambush. Lions don’t have much stamina, and so if a close stalk is not possible then more often than not they won’t even try. Lions are heavily built, their main focus is power. Overpowering large prey is their ‘niche’
        Leopards are ambush hunters they too don’t have great stamina and so rely on getting really close using their amazing camouflage. As they are solitary they can’t rely on back up and can’t chase the prey into and ambush. They are very quick and very powerful. Leopards success comes greatly from the fact that it can climb trees. Caching food out of reach of other hungry predators, means its can eat at leisure. Their need to be very powerful in their forequarters, to haul up to 60kgs up a vetical tree.
        Cheetah are designed completely differently to the other two big cats, relying on their speed to hunt. They are streamline, with long legs a long rudder-like tail and many other adaptations for a high speed chase. Cheetah are not very powerful animals.

        Looking at their hunting techniques really gives you an insight into why they are designed like they are.
        I hope this brief explanation helps a little, and please if you need any more information don’t hesitate to contact me again.

        Thank you


  2. Travis says:

    If lions see in mainly blues and greens what color stands out the most?


    • danielpeel says:

      Hi Travis
      Thank you for the question.
      Animal vision is something that the layman observer doesn’t really understand, as it is very hard to comprehend that animals actually have a completely different view of the world.
      So the colours that stand out most for lions is quite hard, because they perceive colour differently. Many people say any bright/ vivid colours, this is not because of the actual colour but the fact that it stands out. For a lion even though the colour is not seen it will stick out, and may be a different shade of colour but the fact that nothing else in the bush is that colour it can be picked out very easily.

      Another colour that is a no-no in the bush is white. This is not because it sticks out as much as the brighter colours, but because this is the colour animals us as a warning. If you look at say Kudu as they run they will curl their tail show the brilliant white underneath, other animals of the same species or other, will pick that up and often follow it. The idea of this is that all animals flee in the same direction instead of scattering, creating a greater chance of predation.
      Saying that Lions use the opposite, they use black. If you look at the tail tuft of a lion it is black, the back of the ears are also black.

      So to sum up, lions will pick out bright vivid colours, because they are not natural. Whites and blacks because they are more alert to those colours.

      I hope that answers you question, please feel free if you have anything else I need to expand on.


  3. Alvin Toulson says:

    Hello Daniel,
    I encountered a Black Leopard at night, that I believe had different colour eyeshine on three separate occasions . The first time was in 2008, when I saw a pair of red eyes in a bush through torchlight from about 4 feet away.
    The second encounter was a year later in 2009, in the very same month and place as my first encounter, but this time I saw an incredibly bright jade green eyeshine from approximately 30 metres.
    On the third encounter the eyeshine was amber in colour, and viewed from around 25 feet. On this occasion only, I got a good look at the animal in full moonlight and what an incredible sight it was!
    This animal shouldn’t have been where I saw it, and this leads me to believe that all 3 sightings mentioned were very probably of the same animal.
    Seeing as the eyeshine was a different colour on each occasion, in your opinion, do you think this was likely to have been caused by looking from a different angle please?

    Regards Alvin


    • danielpeel says:

      Thank you for you comment Alvin,
      That is amazing black leopards are very very rare, where are you seeing it?
      Yes I would say the different angle and the distance might have influenced the eye shine.


      • It regularly visits a place where I walk my dog’s in Essex. Haven’t come across it this year yet, but it turned up last year for the best part of three weeks. Can’t give too much away as to the exact location, otherwise there might be trophy hunters all over the place.
        If you’re intrigued, feel free to email me!


  4. d.chandra shekar reddy says:

    THIS HELPED ME VERY MUCH TO KNOW About the lion eye specifially which helped me to complete my project.


  5. Jl pretorius says:

    Hello Daniel
    Why is it supposively save for adults to whatch lions on a open vehicle
    And why dont they allow children the same


    • danielpeel says:

      That is a very good question thank you.
      To get the answer you need to understand lion behaviour and hunting techniques. Lions when hunting are always looking for the weaker individuals, for example in a herd of zebra. Possibly an injured animal but young are always easier to catch, as they have less ‘life experience’ they may panic and run away from the safety of the herd. They also may be slower and put up less of a fight.
      Therefore lions are always looking for weaker prey.
      Children always attract their attention for this reason, and although the safety of the vehicle helps lions will always be drawn to children as it could possible be an easy meal.


      • Jl pretorius says:

        Let me rephrase the question
        Is it safe for any person (adult or child) to go on a game drive on a open vehicle ,stopping next to a pride of lions to observe them


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