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Did sore teeth make Tsavo lions eat people?

It wasn’t desperation that drove the legendary “man-eating lions of Tsavo” to terrorize a railroad camp in Kenya more than a century ago, according to a new analysis of their teeth.

“Our results suggest that preying on people was not the lions’ last resort, rather, it was simply the easiest solution to a problem that they confronted,” says Larisa DeSantis, assistant professor of earth and environmental studies at Vanderbilt University.

“It’s hard to fathom the motivations of animals that lived over a hundred years ago, but scientific specimens allow us to do just that,” says Bruce Patterson, a mammals curator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago who has studied the Tsavo lions extensively. “Since The Field Museum preserves these lions’ remains, we can study them using techniques that would have been unimaginable a hundred years ago.”

tsavo lions teeth and jaws
The primary Tsavo man-eater, left, had major dental damage including a major abscess and loss of teeth. The jawbone of the Mfuwe man-eater, right, shows multiple lesions and other injuries consistent with damage done by a powerful kick from an antelope or buffalo. Both injuries were serious enough to have interfered with the lions’ ability to hunt their natural prey successfully. (Credit: Bruce Patterson/Field Museum)

To shed light on the lion’s motivations, the researchers used state-of-the-art dental microwear analysis on the teeth of three man-eating lions from the Field Museum’s collection: the two Tsavo lions (from what is now Kenya) and a lion from Mfuwe, Zambia that consumed at least six people in 1991. The analysis can provide valuable information about the nature of an animal’s diet in the days and weeks before its death.

Published in Scientific Reports, the study investigates the theory that prey shortages may have driven the lions to eat people. At the time, the Tsavo region was in the midst of a two-year drought and a rinderpest epidemic that had ravaged the local wildlife.

If the lions were desperate for food and scavenging carcasses, the man-eating lions should have dental microwear similar to hyenas, which routinely chew and digest the bones of their prey.

“This lion would have been challenged to subdue and kill large struggling prey. Humans are so much easier to catch.”

“Despite contemporary reports of the sound of the lion’s crunching on the bones of their victims at the edge of the camp, the Tsavo lion’s teeth do not show wear patterns consistent with eating bones,” DeSantis says. “In fact, the wear patterns on their teeth are strikingly similar to those of zoo lions that are typically provisioned with soft foods like beef and horsemeat.”

The findings support the idea that dental disease and injury may play a determining role in turning individual lions into habitual man-eaters. The Tsavo lion that did the most man-eating, as established through chemical analysis of the lions’ bones and fur in a previous study, had severe dental disease. It had a root-tip abscess in one of its canines—a painful infection at the root of the tooth that would have made normal hunting impossible.

Watch: Gang of hyenas mobs lions to steal their food

“Lions normally use their jaws to grab prey like zebras and buffalos and suffocate them,” Patterson explains. “This lion would have been challenged to subdue and kill large struggling prey. Humans are so much easier to catch.”

The diseased lion’s partner, on the other hand, had less pronounced injuries to its teeth and jaw—injuries that are fairly common in lions which are not man-eaters. According to the same chemical analysis, it consumed a lot more zebras and buffalos, and far fewer people, than its hunting companion.

The fact that the Mfuwe lion also had severe structural damage to its jaw provides additional support for the role of dental problems in triggering man-eating behavior, as do a number of reports of man-eating incidents by tigers and leopards in colonial India that cite similar infirmities, the researchers say.

“Our data suggests that these man-eating lions didn’t completely consume the carcasses of their human or animal prey,” DeSantis says. “Instead, people appear to have supplemented their already diverse diet.

“Anthropological evidence suggests that humans have been a regular item on the menu of not only lions, but also leopards and the other great cats. Today, lions seldom hunt people, but as human populations continue to grow and the numbers of prey species decline, man-eating may increasingly become a viable option for many lions.”

Vanderbilt University, the Brown Fund of the Field Museum of Natural History, and National Science Foundation funded the work.

Source: Vanderbilt University