In 1898, an attempt by the British to build a railway bridge across the gorge in Tsavo, Kenya, ended in a fiasco when a pair of lions began to catch workers one by one and … there are them. Obviously, workers who had not yet been eaten were not enthusiastic. Like the British military, who followed the construction of the project. Lieutenant Colonel John Patterson eventually shot two of these lions, guaranteeing an interesting bike for the event of a dinner party. Like, you know, I once shot two man-eating lions.
Patterson also made some money on this story, writing an interesting book about this case. In it he told how the lions ate the man behind his tent, crunched their bones and terribly mugged. He also sold the remains of these lions to the Chicago Museum, where they were packed, put on public display and have since been intensively studied.
And in an article published on Wednesday in Scientific Reports, biologists provided evidence that indicates that Patterson might have been slightly exaggerating. Previous studies have shown that the man-eating lions probably killed 35 people, not the 130 that Patterson said. But now the study also questioned the crunch of bones, of which Patterson spoke, studying microscopic scratches on the teeth of lions.
“It’s hard to understand the motivation of animals that lived more than a hundred years ago, but scientific samples allow us to do this,” says Bruce Patterson (not a relative of John’s). “As the museum preserves these remains of lions, we can study them using methods that were unthinkable a hundred years ago.”
Bruce Patterson, co-author of the new article, is a MacArthur curator for mammals in the Field Museum of Natural History and has been studying lions for many years. Back in 2000, he discovered a damage to the teeth of lions, which showed that the lions might not have been able to feed from their usual food sources, such as gazelles, because they required a lot of jaw to chew them. The toothaches of lions may have prompted them to pay attention to the next tasty recipe in the menu: people.
But were the lions so hungry that they ate people from head to toe? Most likely, no, judging by the scratches on their teeth.
Paleontologist Larisa Desantis is studying the petrified teeth of long-extinct species of saber-toothed tigers, American lions and wolves, trying to figure out the scratches on their teeth, what kind of food they used before they died.
She also studies the teeth of modern animals, scanning their surface to understand how the carnivorous diet and diet based on flesh and bones were displayed in the characteristics of the teeth. Desantis scans the teeth or their prints in 100-fold magnification and passes the scans through a program that shows whether these cracks occurred randomly or with a certain bite.
In its scanning, hyenas-which chew the bones-have more speckled teeth and microscopic scars than cheetahs, which tend to leave the bones of their prey. Modern lions, says Desantis, are somewhere in between these two.
But the cannibal lions that she studied-including the cannibal from Mfuwa, Zambia, who killed six in 1991-had teeth that look more like the teeth of captured lions. In captivity, these are fed with soft, prepared meat. And since they do not eat bones, the cannibal’s teeth showed that they preferred soft food: for example, human flesh.
It’s hard to understand the motifs of a lion, but it looks like these lions were not desperately hungry – if they were, they probably would have eaten up to the end. Instead, they just preferred people.
“People have become an easy solution to their problem. They were not a common object of prey for lions. And unusual, too. ”
The lions Tsavo and Mfuwe are not the only lions-cannibals. Between 1990 and 2004, 563 people were killed in Tanzania by lions. And because climate change and the growing human population are forcing people and lions to converge, there is no reason to believe that the lions will not take advantage of the situation.
“The number of possible prey in the wild is declining, and the number of people is increasing,” says Desantis.
Analysis of historical samples like lions Tsavo and Mfuwe can help scientists analyze how the dietary preferences of predators have changed over time and what effect human activities have had on these preferences. It also follows from this that the preservation of samples in museum collections is becoming increasingly important. Even if modern science can not extract information from any specimen, it is not known what can happen on this front in the future.