Tag Archives: Carnivora

Once again, the Mystery of the Tsavo Lions Solved

I’ll never forget my first lion.

A colleague and I had just arrived in the Semliki Valley, in the Congo, to a part of that valley then known as the most predator-rich region of Africa, with loads of lions and heaps of hyenas. Lots of leopards too. We arrived at the main base camp for a large expedition that I was to join a year later (this was a brief visit) and were told to find the satellite camp, out in the bush.

“Ten clicks that way, then a left on their road. Good luck finding the road.”

Good luck indeed. Took us forever. And, at one point, after night fell, we had the brilliant idea that we could stand on the hood of of the Land Rover and maybe see lights in the distance (this turns out to have been totally worthless, as the camp was down in a valley, very far away, they mainly had candle light, and by this time only a single hurricane lamp would be burning, invisible from this distance).

So, we stopped, and I got out of the Land Rover, climbed up on to the hood, and just before the driver switched off the headlights, a giant lioness walked up to the truck, right in the headlight beams, looked at me, sniffed at the grill of the truck, and wandered off into the blackness of night, now invisible to us.

She was was about ten feet tall, fifty feet long, and had fangs about a foot long.

OK, I’m exaggerating slightly, but here’s the thing. You see a giant cat, like a lion or tiger, in a zoo, in the enclosure, and that’s one thing. You see a giant cat in the wild, a wild giant cat, not a tame one, and it is close enough to reach over and take your leg off without going anywhere, and that’s a different thing.

That was not to be my first close call with lions, nor the closest in fact, over the next year and a half. And, though I was not eaten by a lion, something like six people were, right near that spot.

Between this short trip and the later, much longer visit to this site, a lion, it is said, started eating people. It was local villagers, living in the usual wattle and daub grass-roofed huts who were being eaten. Lions tend to go for the head region when they kill, but they usually attack much more robust prey, like a large antelope or a buffalo. So, when the take a human, they may crush the head in such a way that an eye ball or two pops out. I was told that in a few of the locations where the lion ate someone, all that was left was an eye ball or two, and that freaked the freaken heck out of the people in those tiny villages.

I was told this by a local Greek merchant named Andre, who happened to be the guy with the biggest and most accurate firearm in the region, who, with his brother, took out the lion. Andre was wearing a nice neckless he had made himself, using one of the canines of the lion. His brother, he told me, had a matching neckless.

So, what about Tsavo? You may remember “The Ghost And The Darkness,” which was a book and a movie, or you may have heard about them from another source. It is an old story.

Back when the British were building a railroad across what is now Kenya, during much of the year 1898, two lions took to dining on the mostly Chinese rail workers. The number of victims they are said to have eaten ranges up to 135 people (see: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures), and the lions were said to be mysterious and demonic. The reality is a bit different. They are known to have eaten 28 railway workers, and they were just regular lions, but of the mainless variety found in that region.

Lions, like cats generally, tend to be specialists. The way to find, trap, and kill (and sometimes, to process or eat) a particular species involves a lot of important detail. They way a Zebra vs. a Buffalo can kick you to death if you are a lion matters. The way to entrap a Ugandan kob vs. a wildebeest are not even close to the same thing, if you are a lion. Lions, therefore, tend to hunt a particular prey, or a small number of possible prey type, for a long time, possibly their entire lives.

Putting this a different way, the list of prey lions are known to have fed on is long. The list of species you actually observe a given pride of lions to feed on, if you watch most of their kills for many months, is very short. Humans are totally on the long list, and of all the wild mammals that kill humans in Africa, lions kill the most. But humans are rarely on the sort list. Why? Because they taste bad to lions, right? That’s what everyone says. Unfortunately, that is not true. We taste just fine, if a bit stringy. But we are bad prey for other reasons. First, we are rare. Yes, yes, seven billion is a lot, but in lion country, we are rare. Second, we live inside hard to get into nests much of the time, so it is not really worth it. Third, lions are not idiots. We have sharp weapons and sometimes guns, so even if a lion can easily sneak up on a human, some other human is going to stick or shoot you. In any event, once a lion starts to eat humans, it does not live too long. The Tsavo lions probably lived longer than the average man eater. The Semliki man eater emerged on the scene, ate some people, and was dispatched between my visit in late August and my return the following June.

But there is some new research telling us a few cool things. Here’s the paper:

DeSantis, L.R.G. and B. D. Patterson. 2017. Dietary behaviour of man-eating lions as revealed by dental microwear textures. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 904 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41598-017-00948-5.

Here is the abstract:

Lions (Panthera leo) feed on diverse prey species, a range that is broadened by their cooperative hunting. Although humans are not typical prey, habitual man-eating by lions is well documented. Fathoming the motivations of the Tsavo and Mfuwe man-eaters (killed in 1898 in Kenya and 1991 in Zambia, respectively) may be elusive, but we can clarify aspects of their behaviour using dental microwear texture analysis. Specifically, we analysed the surface textures of lion teeth to assess whether these notorious man-eating lions scavenged carcasses during their depredations. Compared to wild-caught lions elsewhere in Africa and other large feliforms, including cheetahs and hyenas, dental microwear textures of the man-eaters do not suggest extreme durophagy (e.g. bone processing) shortly before death. Dental injuries to two of the three man-eaters examined may have induced shifts in feeding onto softer foods. Further, prompt carcass reclamation by humans likely limited the man-eaters’ access to bones. Man-eating was likely a viable alternative to hunting and/or scavenging ungulates due to dental disease and/or limited prey availability.

You need to know that at Tsavo, at that time, the prey was very reduced in frequency because of a drought and the rinderpest. So some lions were probably desperate. In the case of Tsavo, one lion had a tooth problem, which may have made killing larger and more formidable prey difficult, and the other lion was apparently its friend and went along with it. (Male lions do form such small teams.) Other research at Tsavo indicated that these lions had eaten more people than recorded by the railroad, so they may have been eating humans for a while, though not their entire adult lives.

There are two other writeups on this work you will want to check out:

Virginia Morell, “Why did these lions eat 35 men?

Bem Giaromp “Why did the Tsavo lions eat people?

See also: Michael Torrice, “A body count for two man-eating lions

A Field Guide to ALL of the Carnivores! (Almost)

Why would you want a field guide to all of the carninvores? They live everywhere, so there is no reason to carry around a field identification guide with ALL of them unless you were going everywhere in the whole world on one trip!

Yet, there is such a field guide, Carnivores of the World (Princeton Field Guides), and the truth is, this is ONE OF THE COOLEST BOOKS I’VE EVER SEEN! All the carnivores (almost) in one book. Interestingly, it turns out to be possible. There are fewer than three hundred species of terrestrial carnivore in the whole world, and that is fittable in a single book.

That itself is an interesting fact, in proper context. Indeed, when I went through this book, spending a bit of time on each and every page, a number of interesting thoughts about carnivores came to mind….

Regarding taxonomy, diversity, and disparity (the former = number of species, the latter = how different they are), carnivores are fairly unique, but in a way that applies as well to primates. Looking only at the regular terrestrial carnivores first, they are all very similar in certain respects yet there is a fair amount of variation among them, including a huge range of body size from the smallest carnivore that could easily hang out in an open soda can to the largest being the northern Bears (either polar or brown, depending on how you measure a species “size”). There are almost 30 orders of Mammalia, and Carnivora is about the fifth most speciose. Yet, Carnivora has fewer than 300 species. Compared to some other animal Classes (Mammalia is a Class). the mammals, for all the interest we have in them, are fairly low density in respect to species (there are something like 10,000 Birds!), high in disparity (the “hooved animals” includes whales and bats fly like birds!) and are rather cryptic with respect to how visible they are on the landscape (compared, again, to birds, which are always rather in your face).

Carnivores, relative to some of the more common mammal Classes, are both ubiquitous and thinly distributed. As you track mammals across the landscape, you might find that certain mammals are highly concentrated here and there, almost absent in other places. The total biomass of bovids in northern climes varies dramatically as you go from herds of bison to forests with thinly distributed deer to tundra or mountain slopes where the highly specialized forms occur in small groups with big gaps between. But everywhere you go, you will be within the territory of a carnivore. In fact, as a rule, you’ll be within the territory of between two and four carnivores, as they tend to divide themselves up by size class, with the classes sometimes competing with each other. In one place there may be otters or minks (small) and coyotes (medium) and either a cougar or a wolf pack (large), or there may be lots of coyotes (large) and otherwise mainly stoats and the like (small). In much of Africa, there will be one large cat (lion) one small cat (golden, wild-house, or sand?) one hyena and two or more mongoose-getet-civet-like creatures that are different from each other in size covering the exact spot you are standing. You’re standing there looking at some bird, and off in the bush there are five carnivores looking at you. In the ancient middle east, there would be lion, leopard, a smaller cat, and an even smaller cat. And so on.

Don’t think about that too much … it is just a rule of thumb. The point is, most space is occupied by carnivores, yet at the same time they are way spread out because of their territorial habits which arose for a number of reasons including the fact that they eat other animals and thus are limited. And, this means that as they disperse during their own carnivoresque personal development cycle, they tend to disperse over very long distances, maybe not during all generations but certainly some. Therefore, some carnivore species have huge ranges, or if they have diversified a bit, some carnivore groups of species have huge ranges. And, for many types of carnivores, there are both tropical and template’s and in between forms. This is not typical of the other orders of mammals.

This is why we get interesting patterns such as the fact that the New World cougar and the Cheetah are close relatives, having differentiated in North America. The Cougar did not spread from North America probably (this is just an educated guess) because medium+ size cats were already everywhere, but the Cheetah was rather a novelty … a doggish cat that could run as fast as the fastest antelope or pronghorn … so it did spread. Subsequent events left the Cheetah only in Africa but it was once more widely dispersed (as a type of cat, not necessarily the same species).

The lion was probably the one mammal among all mammals, other than humans, that has the largest range of all mammals ever, having been spread across North America, Europe, Asia and Africa not too long ago. And so on and so forth.

The result of these patterns of adaptation, dispersal, and ecology is what you see in Carnivores of the World (Princeton Field Guides). When you look at the carnivores organized more or less by taxonomy and then pay attention to the geography, your mind will be blown and you will demand an explanation! How the hell did we get the same basic animal living in the woods of North America (wolverine) and the nearby prairies (badgers) as we have across Europe and Asia and Africa (the honey badger) with about dozen or so other versions all over the place? And you will see other patterns as well; As you thumb through the pages, you will repeatedly see size grading among the carnivores, but most of the size grading is localized. It isn’t like Asia has large otter-mink-stoat critters and Africa small ones .. everywhere gets a range from small to large. Also, as you thumb through the pages, every here and there you’ll see “Crab Eating X” where “X” is some kind of animal (dog, badger, cat, whatever). Either carnivores like them their crabs or carnivore namers are regularly surprised enough to see crab eating that they tend to name anything they see eating a crab after that behavior, even if some of them actually rarely do. (Had I named coyotes after my first extended wild encounters with them, they would be the “crab eating dog”!)

Hunter’s book does not cover the fish. Yes, folks, just as the “hooved animals” gave rise to several fish (whales) and other groups have given rise to fish (hippos, etc.) the carnivores has a fish branch as well (walrus, seals, sea lions). I think it would be cool if Carnivores of the World (Princeton Field Guides) included these critters as well. Including them would make important points about evolution. I respect the fact that this book is written by an expert on land carnivores, so having seals and such in there with the terrestrial forms may be inappropriate. But in a future edition of the book, I would love to see five pages dedicated to the Fish nee Carnivores, not all species but just a nod to the families of seals, walrus, and sea lions.

The other thing that is missing from this book that I would very much like to see and that I must insist (as if I could) be included in the next edition is range maps. I have ideas as to how to make them fit. It is important. (But see below)

Luke Hunter is an Australian who has done research in South Africa and elsewhere. He heads the Panthera Corporation and formerly headed Great Cats and the Wildlife CosnervationSociety.

The Panthera Foundation web site has lots of information about carnivores, and in particular, you can download the range maps that are missing from the book, here!

Keep an eye on the prey: You’ll find the predator

In Robert Gardner’s documentary film Dead Birds, the men of a highland New Guinea village guard the perimeter of the territory, watchful for men of the neighboring group who may be intent on sneaking into the gardens to capture and kill an unwitting child or woman in order to avenge a prior death. But they don’t see the men sneaking through the dense riparian forest. They don’t even look for them. Rather, they see the birds fly from their preferred habitat where they are foraging or resting, startled into the open by … something. The birds belie the predator.
Continue reading Keep an eye on the prey: You’ll find the predator

The best of the best in plant biology, conservation, photography, and evolution

I have about ten favorite species of tree, and one of them is the corotú. Why? Because of one of the most interesting plant-animal interaction stories of recent times. The story, complete with extinct elephant-like creatures and a real Sherlock Holmes science theme can be read, along with some great images, at A Neotropical Savanna: The Corotú and the Gomphothere.
Continue reading The best of the best in plant biology, conservation, photography, and evolution

The Science of Lion Prides


Although the paper addresses Tanzanian lions, this is a photograph of a Namibian lion
Starting some years ago, we began to hear about revisions of the standard models of lion behavioral biology coming out of Craig Packer’s research in the Serengeti. One of the most startling findings, first shown (if memory serves) as part of a dynamic optimization model and subsequently backed up with a lot of additional information, is the idea that lions do not benefit by living in a group with respect to hunting. They live in groups despite the fact that this sociality decreases hunting effectiveness. This is a classic case of “but wait, I can see it with my own eyes!” vs. data.

ResearchBlogging.orgSome of the most recent work done by Packer’s team has just been highlighted in a pretty nice write up by Mattt Walker in the BBC, representing a paper just coming out. The most interesting finding: Male lions kill (or attempt to kill) females from neighboring prides in order that their own pride obtains numerical superiority in pursuit of territorial competition.
Continue reading The Science of Lion Prides

Polar Bears and Global Warming


The pending federal decision about whether to protect the polar bear as a threatened species is as much about climate science as it is about climate change.

The US Fish and Wildlife service is contemplating the listing of the obviusly endangered polar bear as a threatened species. Well, duh…The problem for them (the US Federal Government, which has been converted over the last 7 years into a right wing think tank) is that the main threat to the polar bear is global warming, and there are still plenty of individuals in charge of the US that want to deny global warming. Continue reading Polar Bears and Global Warming

Polar Bears Under Threat …

As usual. Along with seabirds, owing to decisions made by the US government.i-7c1e573d79649747b45f84dcd8800681-polar_bear.jpg

The US Government has auctioned leases to drill for oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska, putting at risk internationally important concentrations of seabirds, and a number of threatened bird species, including the Critically Endangered Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostri.Audubon (BirdLife in the USA) says the Chukchi Sea is also home to one-tenth of the world’s remaining Polar Bears Ursus maritimus, and the only population of Bowhead Whales Balaena mysticetus not yet considered by the IUCN to be threatened.At least 15 species of birds on Audubon Alaska’s WatchList use marine and coastal habitats in the Chukchi Sea. The WatchList identifies declining and vulnerable species and populations of birds.Bird species at risk include the Vulnerable Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri and Near Threatened Ivory Gull Pagophila eburnea. There are two major seabird colonies on the East (Alaskan) coast of the Chukchi Sea, supporting an estimated 850,000 breeding birds between them, mostly Thick-billed Uria lomvia and Common Guillemot (or Murre) U. aalge, and Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla. Kittlitz’s Murrelet breeds at both sites.

Read the rest here at BirdLife International

Very Large Parks are the Wave of the Future

i-7d35893be24aaef70df6fcdd0a3c03cc-tigersnowJLM1161.jpgAcross Africa, and to some extent Asia, existing large parks and preserves are being combined into very large parks in order to serve several important functions. One is to make the parks so large that there will be interior areas that are impractical for most poaching or other encroachment. Another is to allow movement of migratory animals into new areas when their populations grow (presumably with some degree of natural culling cycling the process down now and then). Another is to allow a park to always contain a minimal range of a certain habitat even when secular or long term climate variation reduces that habitat. Yet another may be to make the park more attractive to tourism.With animals like tigers, who have relatively low population densities, it is essential to have large contiguous areas in order to have a viable population size both for genetic diversity and to get past periods of decimation by periodic disease or starvation episodes. Continue reading Very Large Parks are the Wave of the Future

The Physics of Tatiana

i-ab222cf9ca9b8e8bb7322a8fb392a522-tatiana.jpgTatiana was the captive Siberian Tiger who, on Christmas Day, leaped out of her cave to attack teenage boys who were taunting her. She killed one of them. Zookeepers are investigating how she did it, considering the possibility that the wall of her enclosure was not high enough (technically, it was lower than recommended height by a short distance). Tatiana’s leap has, indeed, has rekindled a long term dialog regarding zoos, and big cats in zoos in particular.Now, a physicist at Northeastern University in Boston, has produced an analysis indicating that what did happen was possible. However, I think there is a problem with the analysis. Continue reading The Physics of Tatiana