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Why do some lions hunt people?
“I have a very vivid memory of a particular night when the beasts grabbed a man from the train station and brought him near my camp to consume him. I could clearly hear the cracking of the bones, and the sound of their terrible purring filled the air and lingered in my ears for days. " - Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, "The Man-Eaters of Tsavo: And Other East African Adventures"
These gruesome words tell of how African lions terrorized a railroad construction project in Tsavo, Kenya over a hundred years ago. They killed and ate 35 workers. But how and why the big cats became "cannibals" is still scientifically controversial.
For example, some experts suggest that a lack of prey (triggered by drought and an epidemic in the late 19th century) drove lions to hunt people out of sheer desperation. There is one problem with this theory, however - starving lions would probably have got the most out of every meal and would have eaten the whole human bones.
And despite Patterson's memory of cracking bones, a new analysis of the two lions' teeth shows no evidence that they ate human bones.
Study director Larisa DeSantis, a paleoecologist at Vanderbilt University, and her colleagues use imaging techniques to map the micro-wear on the teeth of the Tsavo lions. The teeth are in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where they were kept after Patterson and other hunters shot the lions. The team also examined the teeth of another lion who attacked at least six people in Zambia in 1991. (Also read: Lions: Us or Them?)
The microphotographs of the teeth of all three animals did not show any of the tell-tale peaks and valleys normally found in bone-eating predators such as hyenas.
The study, which appeared in Scientific Reports on April 19, reported that their teeth were smooth and showed wear patterns similar to those found on the teeth of zoo lions given soft foods like beef.
That means the lions did not attack the railroad workers as a last resort, but rather likely ate humans as part of a more diverse diet.
"We often see ourselves as the top of the food chain, but in fact we've been on the menu of lions and other big cats for a long time," says DeSantis.
There is another aspect of this mystery: dental disease.
One of the Tsavo lions had a broken canine tooth and an abscess, which presumably also led to the loss of several surrounding teeth, says Paul Emily, founder of the Paul Emily Veterinary Dental Foundation. Paul Emily Dental Foundation). The Zambian lion from 1991 had such a bad jaw fracture that even the skin was torn and presumably constantly wetting the wound.
Lions are extremely dependent on their teeth, which they use to grab prey animals and suffocate them by crushing the animals' windpipe. A study by DeSantis and co-author Bruce Patterson found in 2003 that around 40 percent of lions in Africa have dental injuries from their regular use.
Both the Tsavo lions and the Zambian lion would have had difficulty opening their jaws. Killing a zebra or a buffalo would have been extremely painful, if not impossible.
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