According to legend, the infamous Tsavo man-eating lions dined on 135 people near a Kenyan labor camp prior to their capture in 1898. The two maneless lions have been a crowd favorite at Chicago’s Field Museum, where the stuffed beasts have been on display for over 80 years. But after analyzing fragments of the lions’ bones and fur, scientists at the University of California in Santa Cruz have determined that the true number of humans eaten by the lions was likely closer to 35. By comparing isotopes in the lions’ samples with their normal prey of zebra, wildebeest and buffalo, with other lions, and with the remains of 19th century Kenyans, the scientists estimated that one of the lions ate 24 humans, while the other ate 11 [Chicago Tribune]. The results suggest that the lions hunted together but didn’t always share food, which makes the pair the first example of a cooperative hunting group that ate different prey.
The two lions developed a taste for man after drought, pestilence, and hunting killed of most of their usual prey, according to previous research. Also, the Tsavo lions lived near a slave trading route, which offered easy access to sick, injured, or dead slaves. The lions dragged people from tents at night…. After nine months of this, the beasts were finally killed in December [Nature News]. The recent analysis suggests one of the lions had developed a toothache, which made eating humans easier than devouring its normal prey. The study attributes 24 deaths to one cat, or 30 per cent of its diet, and 11 deaths to the other, just 13 per cent of its food [New Scientist].
Colonel John H. Patterson, a British engineer, shot the lions and then wrote a book about their killing spree, claiming that “28 railroad workers and scores of unfortunate Africans” had been killed [Chicago Tribune]. Some believe that in order to boost the selling price of the lions, he exaggerated the lions’ man-killing ways and inflated the death count to 135. Patterson sold the lion skins for $5,000 to the Field Museum in 1924.
The current study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
80beats: Tigers and Humans Tangle in Sumatra; Both Sides Lose
80beats: Lion Die-Off Shows How Climate Change Can Cause Epidemics
Image: flickr / lisa andres
When researchers warn of the dire consequences of global warming, they often mention that disease patterns for both humans and animals will change in a warmer world. In the most obvious scenario, infectious disease carriers like mosquitoes may increase their ranges, bringing tropical disease to northern climes. But there will also be far more subtle examples of the interplay between climate and disease, and researchers say they’ve found an early case that may be a harbinger of what’s to come. It’s not a canary in a coal mine, but rather a lion in the Serengeti.
A research team from Minnesota studied data from two extreme die-offs of lions; a 1994 incident when almost one-third of lions in the Serengeti National Park died, and a similar incident in the nearby Ngorongoro Crater area in 2001. Researchers found that those lions were infected by two diseases that usually occur in isolation. In 1994 and 2001, however, a “perfect storm” of extreme drought followed by heavy seasonal rains set up the conditions for the two diseases to converge, the study said [National Geographic News].