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BRIEF: Man-Eating Lions Ate Only Soft Flesh

BRIEF: Man-Eating Lions Ate Only Soft Flesh

Toothache may have driven famous Tsavo lions to prey on humans.

John Patterson with Tsavo lion cropped.jpg

John Patterson poses with the carcass of one of the man-eating Tsavo lions after shooting it in 1898. 

Image credits:

Courtesy of The Field Museum

Wednesday, April 19, 2017 - 05:00

Nala Rogers, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- When Tsavo's famous man-eating lions came to terrorize construction workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway at the end of the nineteenth century, the hunter that finally killed the creatures wrote that their ambushes filled the night with the sound of crunching bones. But a new analysis of the lions' teeth calls this claim into question, suggesting that the lions relied on softer flesh.

The two male lions brought railroad construction to a halt when they killed dozens of people over a nine-month period in 1898. Their story has inspired three Hollywood movies and much speculation about the lions' motivations. Some have suggested that a shortage of game drove the lions to seek out carrion and human prey. If game were scarce, the researchers reasoned, lions would have eaten entire carcasses, not letting the bones go to waste. To test this hypothesis, they examined wear patterns on the teeth of the infamous Tsavo lions, as well as on the teeth of another man-eating lion killed in 1991.

Contrary to expectations, the three lions' teeth showed little of the wear that would have come from a bone diet, according to a study published today in Scientific Reports. However, the researchers found signs of severe dental disease on the Tsavo man-eater that ate the most people, and a broken jaw on the man-eater that was killed in 1991. Both lions would have struggled to grip the throat of a thrashing wildebeest, and they might have had trouble eating bones, according to the researchers. But even with their injured mouths, they apparently found humans to be easy prey.

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Author Bio & Story Archive

Nala Rogers is a staff writer and editor at Inside Science, where she covers the Earth and Creature beats. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Utah and a graduate certificate in science communication from U.C. Santa Cruz. Before joining Inside Science, she wrote for diverse outlets including Science, Nature, the San Jose Mercury News, and Scientific American. In her spare time she likes to explore wilderness.