(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.