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The Man-Eater of Mfuwe

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The white bag is there for a reason. Read on.

Matt Wedel kindly passed on the photos you see here. They show the Man-eater of Mfuwe, an enormous male lion Panthera leo that terrorised the small town of Mfuwe (and the surrounds) in the Luangwa River Valley of eastern Zambia. The photos were taken in Chicago’s Field Museum where the specimen has been on display since donation in 1998 (sorry about the glare – it’s impossible to take good photos without smashing into the case, and the museum generally discourages that sort of thing).

The history and behaviour of man-eating big cats is truly fascinating stuff; the stealth, cunning and occasional reckless confidence they display in getting at their victims, the level and extent of their depredations, and the stealth and cunning that human hunters have to use to put an end to these cats are frequently extraordinary and make fascinating reading. I regularly refer to the 1992 book Man-Eater: Tales of Lion and Tiger Encounters (edited by Edward Hodges-Hill). It includes articles on the Iyenpur tigress, the Jerangau, Champawat, Kempekarai and Mamandur man-eating tigers, the ‘Ogre of Bellundur’ (a tiger), the Tsavo lions, Jim Corbett’s adventures with the Thak man-eater, and many others (Hodges-Hill 1992).

Of all these killer cats, perhaps the most famous were the two male lions who killed a claimed 135 people* in what is now Tsavo National Park during the 1890s. The story of these two lions and their depredations have been the subject of three Hollywood movies, the best known of which is the 1996 The Ghost and The Darkness. An excellent and thorough book, Bruce D. Patterson’s The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa’s Notorious Man-Eaters, discusses this episode in full, placing it within the context of modern research on lion behaviour, conservation and variation (Patterson 2004).

* This number (estimated by Colonel John Henry Patterson, the killer of the two lions) was questioned by Yeakel et al. (2009). Based on stable isotope analysis and estimates of calorific requirements, they reckoned that both lions killed about 34 people in total, a number substantially lower than Patterson’s estimate. Yeakel et al. (2009) might be right, but they might not.

It isn’t the only book on the Tsavo lions – there’s also Philip Caputo’s Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa (Caputo 2002). Both books discuss the Man-eater of Mfuwe; my text here is based almost entirely on their accounts.

The sign that accompanies the lion at the Field Museum. Don't read the text - it's a spoiler for the rest of this article...

The Mfuwe lion wasn’t killing and eating people back in Victorian times or anything like that. Rather, it was a modern man-eater, its attacks occurring in 1991. The first occurred as two boys were walking along a road at night. One boy fled; by the time game rangers arrived at the attack site, only pieces of clothing and part of the other boy’s skull were found. The second attack occurred at the edge of a village – this time the victim was an adult woman; the lion had broken through the door of her hut to get her. The third attack (occurring at night on a boy who ventured out to meet a friend) was foiled when a game scout fired his gun into the air during the attack, but the boy died of his severe injuries anyway.

Three more kills occurred later in 1991, the last one again involving a woman being dragged from the hut where she lived. Prior to this last kill, it was locally believed that lionesses belonging to the ‘L-pride’ were responsible for the killings, and indeed one of these lionesses was shot dead in August of 1991. The important role of an adult male lion now came to the fore. This lion entered the woman’s hut during daylight and removed a bag containing her laundry. It took the bag to the centre of the village, dropped it, and stood over the bag, roaring. Remarkably, the lion carried the bag about the countryside, leaving it at different locations and sometimes playing with it. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, people now suspected that the lion was no ordinary lion, but a demon or sorcerer in lion form.

Some sources say that people weren’t allowed to hunt and kill this lion because Zambia’s laws about game conservation didn’t allow it. That’s not wholly correct, given the killing of one of the suspected man-eating lionesses by game wardens (they also shot a juvenile male lion at the same time, but didn’t kill it). The other females in the pride were also shot dead later on.

The Mfuwe man-eater’s reign was put to an end by Californian hunter Wayne Hosek. Hosek wasn’t the first to try and kill the Mfuwe lion – a professional hunter, and a Japanese hunter and naturalist, had both tried earlier. Hosek was already in the area with permission to hunt individuals from a list of large mammal species, lion among them. There’s the whole debate here about controlled hunting and its contribution to economy and conservation versus its abuse at the hands of the unscrupulous, the selective impact it has on animal populations, and the ethics of trophy-hunting. I’m somewhat mystified by the idea that anyone can look at a lion, elephant or hippo and feel compelled to shoot it to death, but my personal perspective on this matter is that giving live wildlife an actual dollar value can only be a good thing, at least if you want live wildlife to still be present in future decades.

Anyway, Hosek and professional hunter Charl Beukes (or Buekes? Both spellings are used in the literature) sat for about three weeks in a hide, hoping that a nearby bait of hippo meat would attract the cat and allow them to kill it. Early attempts were unsuccessful – the lion even circled the bait one night, but was so stealthy that it had avoided all detection. Eventually, Hosek succeeded in killing it. On the lion’s death, people swarmed out of the village to spit at the animal and beat it with sticks.

The Mfuwe lion, today on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, is enormous: 3.2 m in total length, 1.2 m tall at the shoulder, and with a mass estimated at 249 kg (Caputo 2002). And, contrary to local descriptions of it being equipped “with a huge mane” (Caputo 2002, p. 3), it’s wholly maneless.

Manelessness in lions – the competing hypotheses

Patterson wrote that Hosek was due to write a book about the Mfuwe man-eater; so far as I can tell this hasn’t happened, but do say if you know otherwise. If you’ve read Patterson’s or Caputo’s books, or if you know a lot about lions in general, you’ll know that the Man-eater of Mfuwe was similar to the man-eating male lions of Tsavo in being maneless. In fact some witnesses did say exactly this, but their descriptions of a maneless lion were assumed to be of a lioness, hence the deliberate targeting of lionesses in efforts to eliminate the man-eater.

One of the two Tsavo lions, with Colonel John Henry Patterson (no direct relation to Bruce D. Patterson, author of The Lions of Tsavo). The image is in the public domain.

Why is manelessness prevalent among lions of this region? Actually, this is a rather controversial subject and numerous hypotheses have been entertained: for a thorough, fully referenced discussion, see Patterson (2004). Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion is that the lions concerned represent a distinct, ancient lineage, phylogenetically separate from other living lions and perhaps being relict, Pleistocene-type lions (Gnoske & Kerbis Peterhans 2000). The authors who promote this hypothesis have used the term ‘Buffalo lions’ for these animals (von Buol 2000) since they describe them as specialised predators of Cape buffalo and other especially big prey. It has also been called the ‘basal lion hypothesis’ (Patterson 2003). Molecular and morphological data does not support this idea: DNA and morphometrics both show that Tsavo-type, maneless lions are deeply nested within Panthera leo, being close to other east and south African lion populations (Patterson 2004, Dubach et al. 2005). [Maneless lion photo below by Mgiganteus.]

Maneless Tsavo lion, photographed in Tsavo East National Park, Kenya, 2007, by Mgiganteus. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The possibility that lions have lost manes because manes are physiologically costly in some environments has also been entertained, as has the idea that manes are reduced and lost in habitats where they provide a disadvantage to moving about among thorn-scrub. Then there’s the idea the maneless lions are old and poor in condition (Patterson (2004) called this the ‘down-and-out hypothesis’), and the alternative idea that their manelessness results from especially high levels of testosterone (that’s right, high levels of testosterone causes hair follicles to shrink: hair reduction and loss is the result). Given that Tsavo-type lions are evolving within a social system where single males, rather than coalitions, associate with female prides, it might be that a particular male physiology is driving manelessness. But, as usual, it seems that several factors are at play: thorn brush and a hot, dry climate might contribute to mane reduction in Tsavo-type lions (Kays & Patterson 2002, Gnoske et al. 2006, Patterson et al. 2006) as well. This issue was previously discussed in the ver 2 article Why the Lion Grew Its Mane, a book review.

Why become a man-eater?

Jim Corbett and the Champawat tigress, supposedly the killer of 436 people until shot by Corbett in 1907. This was only the first of 19 man-eating tigers and leopards that Corbett killed during his life. Photo in public domain.

As much as I’d like to continue discussing variation within lions, my time is up, and this is still a topic I plan to return to at length. One more thing is worth saying: why do some big cats become bold man-eaters in the first place?

It’s a well known bit of lore that man-eating big cats are sometimes injured or sickly individuals that take to killing humans because it’s easy, and because the animals are desperate enough to disregard normal caution or fear. The Mfuwe lion was described as looking “a little green around the gills” when seen in the field, and had sustained a major injury to the lower jaw that had resulted in pustulous lesions (Patterson 2004, pp. 76-77). The two Tsavo lions both had craniodental injuries that might have prevented normal predatory behaviour (Yeakel et al. 2009). However, this ‘infirmity hypothesis’ doesn’t explain all cases, since many problem big cats have been perfectly healthy.

Other individuals become bold and experienced following a chance encounter with an unfortunate human, and then deliberately target people in future. Others switch to humans as prey because funeral rites, atrocities resulting from slavery and so on mean that human remains left out in the open are opportunistically scavenged and hence ‘turn on’ a culture of human-eating in some individuals or groups. Finally, shortages of natural prey caused by drought, disease epidemics and extirpation by people also seem to cause lions, tigers and other big cats to switch to humans through desperation.

The two Tsavo lions, as displayed today at the Field Museum. Photo by Jeffrey Lung, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

Human encroachment on big cat habitat, the invasion of habitat by domestic livestock and by people hunting for bushmeat – in short, human disruption of ecosystems – means that big cats both become more familiar with people as potential prey items, and are increasingly pushed into a corner where humans become ever more desirable and available prey items. And some or all of these phenomena might combine, meaning that the cause of man-eating behaviour is not exactly simple. Of incidental interest is that human predators have sometimes used outbreaks of man-eating in lions and other cats to conceal their own murderous habits.  Of the several creepy stories on record, perhaps the weirdest is that concerning the ‘lion-men of Singida’. These were actually drugged young women “sewn into animal hides, and fitted with deadly prosthetic claws” (Patterson 2004).

For previous articles on lions and other cats, see…

Refs – -

Caputo, P. 2002. Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa. National Geographic Society, Washington, D. C.

Dubach, J., Patterson, B., Briggs, M., Venzke, K., Flamand, J., Stander, P., Scheepers, L., & Kays, R. (2005). Molecular genetic variation across the southern and eastern geographic ranges of the African lion, Panthera leo Conservation Genetics, 6 (1), 15-24 DOI: 10.1007/s10592-004-7729-6

Gnoske, T. P., Celesia, G. G. & Kerbis Peterhans, J. C. 2006. Dissociation between mane development and sexual maturity in lions (Panthera leo): solution to the Tsavo riddle?Journal of Zoology 270, 551-560.

- . & Kerbis Peterhans, J. 2000. Cave lions: the truth behind biblical myths. In The Field 71, 2-6.

Hodges-Hill, E. (ed) 1992. Man-Eater. Tales of Lion and Tiger Encounters. Cockbird Press Ltd, Heathfield.

Kays, R. W. & Patterson, B. D. 2002. Mane variation in African lions and its social correlates. Canadian Journal of Zoology 80, 471-478.

Patterson, B. D. 2004. The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa‘s Notorious Man-Eaters. McGraw-Hill, New York.

- ., Kays, R. W., Kasiki, S. M. & Sebestyen, V. M. 2006. Developmental effects of climate on the lion’s mane (Panthera leo). Journal of Mammalogy 87, 193-200.

von Buol, P. 2000. ‘Buffalo’ lions. A feline missing link? Swara: the Magazine of the East African Wildlife Society 23 (2), 20-25.

Yeakel, J. D., Patterson, B. D., Fox-Dobbs, K., Okumura, M. M., Cerling, T. E., Moore, J. W., Koch, P. L. & Dominy, N. J. 2009. Cooperation and individuality among man-eating lions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, 19040-19043.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. BilBy 6:11 pm 05/10/2012

    ‘Beukes’ is the normal spelling for that name. There are lots and lots of ‘unofficial’ maneater stories from reserves and rural areas in southern Africa. It actually appears to be tragically frequent.

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  2. 2. tai haku 6:35 pm 05/10/2012

    I blogged about the maneater of mfuwe back in ’09 and Wayne Hosek actually commented on the post which was a pretty cool surprise – he wrote in late 2011 again to say the book was a couple of days from publication back so it should be out soon if not already. If I say so myself my photos are a bit more glarefree too, it’s a very well done mount (and compares remarkably to the poor old Tsavo pair which have suffered a fair bit over the years) but an absolute PITA to photograph without reflections – my post is here

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  3. 3. Halbred 6:37 pm 05/10/2012

    In all four lion photos in this post, the animals look almost hairless–especially the live maneless Tsvao individual. Do lions have shorter or patchier hair than other big cats? Certainly tigers, jaguars, pumas, and leopards all have a seemingly thicker coat. It’s also interesting to me that lions are basically a dull yellow/brown color–similar to pumas–while other cats tend to have much flashier coats.

    One final oddity–Mfuwe lion’s snout appears to be quite a bit shorter than the two Tsavo lions. Is this a trick of perspective or an actual thing?

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  4. 4. naishd 6:43 pm 05/10/2012

    tai haku (comment 2) – sorry, hadn’t realised you’d covered the Mfuwe lion too and, yes, your photos are better :) This was one of those unplanned article, done hurriedly on a whim after Matt sent me the photos. But I think my article includes a little bit more information than yours does…


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  5. 5. tai haku 7:07 pm 05/10/2012

    It sure does contain more Darren; some of those Patterson references are new since I last read on the topic I think.

    On the topic of maneless “buffalo lions” and maneating, if we accept the premise that there is a correlation between manelessness and lions which go after particularly heavy game like cape buffalo (whether due to culture, habitat or some other factor) then it may stand to reason that these lions are more likely to suffer an incapacitating injury whilst hunting these animals leading to maneating.

    On the topic of the Caputo book I can remember the list of stats regarding Panthera sp. and maneating at the end of the book being mindblowing (and leading me to my first read of Corbett).

    Incidentally I’m just back from India; having seen the proximity tigers and leopards get to people out there I’m amazed there aren’t even more cases of maneating.

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  6. 6. naishd 7:08 pm 05/10/2012

    Halbred (comment 3): cats in general are highly variable with regard to coat length. Populations that live in cool places grow long fur; those that live in hot places grow short fur. This is most obvious in cheetahs and leopards where there are very distinct hot desert forms and forms from cooler, more seasonal places, but it’s also obvious in lions, tigers and other species. The bland, monotone coat of lions appears to be a specialisation for life in open grasslands – lions are part of the spotted clade that also includes leopards and jaguars and evidently had a spotted ancestor (as you probably know, baby lions – and some unusual subadults and adults – are still spotted).

    As for snout length, I’m not sure that those differences are real.


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  7. 7. Eric Dolha 7:34 pm 05/10/2012

    Really interesting, I honestly love these man-killer stories, do you have any stories related to obscure man-killers like say birds and snakes (just a random selection.)

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  8. 8. Hydrarchos 10:20 pm 05/10/2012

    I’m almost sure that the long snouts of the mounted Tsavo lions are due to bad taxidermy. They look almost like they are modelled on dog heads – the one lying down especially, if not for its obviously leonine eyes and ears, could almost be a dog (albeit a rather robust one for that type of head shape, but it reminds me of my partner’s Rhodesian Ridgeback x Staffordshire Bull Terrier… who in fact often gets called “lion dog”!)

    It is interesting how rarely humans are prey for most large predators. I guess (perhaps particularly in Africa, given the length of human and near-human existence there) they have probably evolved some degree of avoidance of humans due to the fact that if a lion/leopard/etc preys on humans it’s likely to be hunted down and killed.

    The live Tsavo lion in that picture looks almost mangy. Could the manelessness of many “man-eaters” be linked to some pathology that, say, impairs stamina and makes more typical prey harder to catch? (Reminds me slightly of the hairless “Texas blue dogs”… or coyote x wolf hybrids as Jon Downes claims them to be…)

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  9. 9. Heteromeles 10:44 pm 05/10/2012

    The head-scratching thing is that, if manes are adaptations to hot, dry environments, then you might expect European cave lions to have enormous manes. Apparently, they were maneless as well.

    I’d suggest that environmental determinism, especially on a small scale with a big predator, might be incorrect. Rather than the environment choosing the amount of mane the lion has, the amount of mane may be a major factor in where the lion prefers to hunt. It can’t be fun to take a big mane through dense thorn scrub, but dense thorn scrub potentially makes for good places for ambush, so lions that aren’t bothered by such habitat may preferentially gather there (assuming prey density and all other things are equal).

    In other words, I think they may have read the correlation backwards. AFAIK, hunting is learned behavior in lions, not totally instinctual, so they may be choosing where they hunt, rather than showing some sort of fine-scale environmental determinism in their genetic structure.

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  10. 10. Dartian 1:25 am 05/11/2012

    Of all these killer cats, perhaps the most famous were the two male lions who killed a claimed 135 people

    My personal favourite (if I may use such a word in this context) man-eating big cat is the leopard of Rudraprayag. Does that Hodges-Hill book you refer to only speak of lions and tigers, or are other big cats included too?

    a mass estimated at 249 kg

    Estimated? If it wasn’t actually measured, I’d take that reported mass with a pinch of salt or two. (Not even male Siberian tigers normally get that big in the wild; ca. 220 kg is their typical upper limit.) Was the Mfuwe lion’s skeleton collected and its measurements published?

    tai haku:
    it’s a very well done mount

    Agreed. In my subjective but not wholly uninformed opinion, felids are exceptionally difficult to make look lifelike. That Field Museum specimen is quite excellent indeed. Kudos to their taxidermy team.

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  11. 11. naishd 4:12 am 05/11/2012

    Mass of the Mfuwe lion: I agree that anything that heavy (249 kg) would be exceptional compared to other very big modern cats, though there are several records of tigers (including Bengal tigers as well as Siberian tigers) that supposedly exceeded 300 kg (384 kg is the claimed upper limit for the 1950 Sikhote Alin Gory Mountains Siberian tiger… the 1967 Uttar Pradesh Bengal tiger was weighed at 389 kg, but the animal still had a lot of water buffalo meat in its stomach). And claimed upper masses for lions exceed 300 kg too – the 1936 Hectorspruit lion was 313 kg (an overweight Colchester Zoo lion weighed 370 kg in 1970). Of course, the usual caveat needs adding here that many of these masses may be inaccurate.

    Anyway, Caputo says “No scales were available to weigh Hosek’s lion, but much later, experts from the Field Museum in Chicago estimated that the lion went upward of 550 pounds” (p. 24). I converted that to kg (because this is the 21st century). So, it’s an estimate, and maybe it’s an inaccurate one. But maybe not, I don’t know.


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  12. 12. barndad 5:04 am 05/11/2012

    Great post! With regards to the idea that the Tsavo lions could have some relationship with Pleistocene Panthera spelaea- comparisons of the DNA between spelaea and leo show that there is a considerable degree of separation between all modern lions and cave lions. Sub-saharan lions are definitely basal within the tree though.
    The fact that P.leo in cold regions (e.g. North Africa and the Cape) developed enormous manes (as do lions kept in captivity in northern Europe) whereas spelaea appears to have been maneless, can be explained if the mane is actually a recent evolutionary development within the leo group. If we posit that the ancestor of modern and cave lions was superficially leopard-like (as the sister species of the lion-group is leopard, and the next closest relative is jaguar) then the lions have only recently gone from being solitary cats to pride-forming. There is evidence from cave art that spelaea was also pride-forming. So, it appears that the first innovation was gregariousness (shared by cave and modern lion), but only the African stock went on to develop manes. Check out the following:
    Yamaguchi et al. J.Zool “Evolution of the mane and group-living in the lion (Panthera leo): a review 2004, v263, p329
    Barnett et al. Mol. Ecol “Phylogeography of lions (Panthera leo ssp.) reveals three distinct taxa and a late Pleistocene reduction in genetic diversity” 2009, v18, p1668
    Barnett et al. Proc. Roy. Soc. B “The origin, current diversity, and future conservation of the modern lion (Panthera leo)” 2006, v273, p2159

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  13. 13. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:24 am 05/11/2012

    Regarding “buffalo lions” – male lions hunt on average larger prey than females, especially buffalo. Not surprisingly a lone male lion is bolder and more likely to conceal himself from a passing human than a group of females.

    BTW, if man-eating means occassionally eating humans, this is still not uncommon. There was a story in the news about lions regularly targeting illegal immigrants moving at hight from Mozambique to South Africa in recent years.

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  14. 14. SRPlant 6:18 am 05/11/2012

    The heads of those Tsavo lions are clearly modelled on Panthera rosa.

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  15. 15. simontonge 8:01 am 05/11/2012

    Darren. An exam question: why are human beings clever, highly social and bipedal? Is it because when they came out of the forests onto the plains as australopithecines they were met with a large, social, terrifying predator (aka lions)and were subjected to highly intensive selection for the above traits in order to defend themselves? If so one could say that we are who we are because of lions and this might explain why lions have such a profound effect on our psyche and we are endlessly fascinated by them, arguably more so than other felids and canids that also eat us.Discuss.

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  16. 16. Dartian 8:34 am 05/11/2012

    Is it because when they came out of the forests onto the plains as australopithecines they were met with a large, social, terrifying predator (aka lions)and were subjected to highly intensive selection for the above traits in order to defend themselves?

    No it isn’t, because:

    1) Hominoid bipedality almost certainly evolved in forested environments (whether in the trees, on the forest floor, or some combination of both, is harder to tell), not on the plains.

    2) There were no lions when Australopithecus first appeared, at least not in Africa. Lions (or rather, their immediate ancestors) are later immigrants from Eurasia.

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  17. 17. David Marjanović 9:13 am 05/11/2012

    Gory Mountains

    Gory = Russian for “mountains”.

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  18. 18. BrianL 9:48 am 05/11/2012

    Are there any jaguars, snow leopards or even cheetahs that are known to have been man-eaters?

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  19. 19. Heteromeles 10:08 am 05/11/2012

    @BrianL: Jaguars are feared as man-eaters, but I don’t know of a particular incident. Some mountain lions have killed people, and among local mountain bikers, there’s a group that seems to have an unreasoning fear of them.

    I’m also surprised that no one has brought up the Sundarbans tigers, since they are reputed to be more consistent man-eaters than other big cats.

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  20. 20. simontonge 10:46 am 05/11/2012

    Dartian: Thanks for the clarification. Do we know how long ‘Homo’ and lions (s.l.) co-existed in East Africa? Given how utterly defenceless humans were until the invention of metal it still amazes me that we survived at all given the mega-carnivore guild that existed in the late Pleistocene!

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  21. 21. Dartian 10:49 am 05/11/2012

    Are there any jaguars, snow leopards or even cheetahs that are known to have been man-eaters?

    Anecdotes aside, I don’t know if any habitual man-eating jaguars are actually on record, but there have definitely been occasional predatory, non-provoked attacks on people by jaguars. See, for example,

    Neto, M.F.C., Neto, D.G. & Haddad, V. 2011. Attacks by jaguars (Panthera onca) on humans in Central Brazil: report of three cases, with observation of a death. Wilderness & Environmental Medicine 22, 130–135.

    (Warning: That paper contains some very graphic photographs of jaguar attack victims.)

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  22. 22. Dartian 11:00 am 05/11/2012

    Do we know how long ‘Homo’ and lions (s.l.) co-existed in East Africa?

    I don’t have the relevant references at hand, unfortunately, but molecular data suggest that the lion’s ancestors diverged from the leopard’s ancestors as recently as 2.9 MYA (Nyakatura & Bininda-Emonds, 2012). (Incidentally, the lion and the leopard are more closely related to each other than either is to the jaguar.) Thus, we have, at least, a maximum date estimate.

    Nyakatura, K. & Bininda-Emonds, O.R.P. 2012. Updating the evolutionary history of Carnivora (Mammalia): a new species-level supertree complete with divergence time estimates. BMC Biology 10(12), doi:10.1186/1741-7007-10-12

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  23. 23. Andreas Johansson 4:11 pm 05/11/2012

    simontonge wrote:
    Given how utterly defenceless humans were until the invention of metal

    I can’t imagine metal made a very great difference here. A stone-tipped spear should be about as much use against a lion as a metal-tipped one.

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  24. 24. Heteromeles 4:36 pm 05/11/2012

    And rocks fly further, if you really want defense.

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  25. 25. Mark.Lees 6:46 pm 05/11/2012

    This may be of interest – I visited Mafue in 2004, on a trip to see the South Luangwa Valley (the airfield that serves the national park is in Mafue). The lions we saw included several prides consisting of several females with their cubs, two ‘solitary’ males (they were alone and resting at the time we saw them, but the guides stated they were associated with female + cub groups) and a pride consisting of two males and two females with no cubs. The interesting thing in the context of this thread is that the two solo males had large manes, while the other two had small scruffy manes, almost but not quite maneless. We encountered the pride of four while on a night game drive, we watched them unsuccesfully hunt two cape buffalo, and they came right up to our vehicle (as in within easy spitting distance). As I said they were not totally maneless, more like the 2007 photo of a Tsavo lion, than the stuffed Mafue specimen. When asked about their lack of a mane, the guide stated they weren’t resident there so he wasn’t sure, but they might not be fully mature, but on the other hand they were full sized (as big as the maned males) and were in a pride with 2 apparently mature females.
    If full sized male lions with and without manes occur in the same vicinity, this would seem to suggest that environment is not likely to be the whole explanation for manelessness.
    If you get the chance, South Luangwa Valley NP is well worth a visit – the area is much denser bush than classic east african game parks like Masai Mara and Amboseli, so the wildlife is often harder to see, but the exerience is wonderful. I would recommend Flatdogs Camp*, just outside Mafue and right next to the South Luangwa park.
    *A Zambezi Flatdog is apparently a nickname in Zambia for crocdiles.

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  26. 26. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:42 pm 05/11/2012

    When I was in Iguazu NP, I was told that a year before jaguar killed one-year son of a park ranger. This would be in 2004.

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  27. 27. vdinets 7:52 pm 05/11/2012

    I remember reading somewhere that Tsavo skins were used as floor rugs for many years before ending up in the museum. That might explain the mangy looks.

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  28. 28. naishd 5:26 am 05/12/2012

    Vlad (comment 27) is correct. Both Tsavo lions were shot in 1898, but when Col. Patterson was lecturing about them at Chicago in 1924, he told Stanley Field that he still owned their skin as rugs (he also still owned the lions’ skulls). Teddy Roosevelt (who hosted Patterson at the White House in 1908) had already made it known that he regarded the Tsavo lions as “the most famous lions in history” (this quote from Patterson’s 1924 letter to the Field Museum). Patterson was now keen to sell the remains, and they were accessioned to the Field in February 1925. The skins weren’t in bad condition at all (despite claims from some that they were “partially moth-eaten”), but the fact that they’d been made into rugs means that transforming them into full mounts was something of a challenge. Some people were disappointed that the final taxiderm mounts were not as large as Patterson said they were in life. It has been suggested that the skins must have been heavily trimmed at their edges in order to make them into rugs, and hence that the mounted specimens are not nearly as large as the live animals were.

    This info from Bruce Patterson’s 2004 The Lions of Tsavo, cited above.


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  29. 29. David Marjanović 8:04 am 05/12/2012

    I can’t imagine metal made a very great difference here. A stone-tipped spear should be about as much use against a lion as a metal-tipped one.

    Indeed, a purely wooden spear should be almost as effective.

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  30. 30. dahosek 9:05 am 05/12/2012

    Wayne Hosek was my dad’s cousin. Unfortunately, he passed away earlier this year. His book was finished and came out from a subsidy publisher:

    The lions are not hairless, but have a normal coat of fur (Wayne invited me to touch the lion when he came to Chicago to present it to the Field Museum—although I have to admit I have no tactile comparison to other lions). There is a touch of longer black fur around the mane area, but not very much.

    Incidentally, that wasn’t the Field taxidermy team that mounted the lion, but rather a Los Angeles-area taxidermist. The lion was shipped to the Field already mounted. They also received the skull from which they surmised that an infection in a tooth may have led to the lion’s man-eating behavior. I don’t think the Field received the skulls of the two earlier Tsavo lions, which might explain the difference in the head shape.

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  31. 31. BilBy 11:10 am 05/12/2012

    @Mark.Lees “A Zambezi Flatdog is apparently a nickname in Zambia for crocdiles”. Not just in Zambia – it’s used all across southern Africa now. Zambian ones are flattest though :)

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  32. 32. CS Shelton 12:50 am 05/13/2012

    As seasonal variation in fur thickness and length is easily observed in common house cats, one can easily imagine a lion moved from Africa to Chicago might look a bit more fluffy. I don’t know that the ability to vary fur based on climate is widespread in cats or not, but it’s another possible explanation for the thin coats.

    Large cats did prey extensively on some early members of our genus, though I don’t recall exact info – just something about bite marks matching a nasty cat, found on a huge cache of skulls. I think the only tools we have records of from that time were “hand-axes” – I haven’t read anything about spears. Though that’s always struck me odd since even chimpanzees have pointed stick technology. Anyone care to enlighten me?


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  33. 33. Andreas Johansson 3:27 am 05/13/2012

    CS Shelton wrote:
    I think the only tools we have records of from that time were “hand-axes” – I haven’t read anything about spears. Though that’s always struck me odd since even chimpanzees have pointed stick technology. Anyone care to enlighten me?

    Well, how’d we know if they had pointy sticks? An all-wood spear isn’t likely to survive in recognizable form for a couple million years.

    Apparently, all-wood throwing spears are known from Germany 400 ka (go here), but this might lag actual invention by an almost arbitrarily long interval.

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  34. 34. busterggi 2:28 pm 05/13/2012

    If you don’t mind my dipping into cryptozoology, it seems to me that cats like this one are probably the origin of the mngwa legend.

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  35. 35. Dartian 2:18 am 05/14/2012

    CS Shelton:
    Large cats did prey extensively on some early members of our genus, though I don’t recall exact info – just something about bite marks matching a nasty cat, found on a huge cache of skulls.

    I’m not aware of any solid fossil evidence of big cat predation on early Homo. IIRC, about ten years ago, National Geographic had an article about the then-recently discovered Homo georgicus, where it was claimed that one of these Dmanisi hominids’ skulls had puncture marks supposedly matching those of the canine teeth of a sabre-toothed cat (exact species not stated). However, as far as I know (and if anyone knows better, please correct me), this remarkable claim has never been substantiated by a published description in the technical literature; until and unless that happens, I’m very sceptical of this particular claim.

    There is, however, the well-documented case of specimen SK-54; it’s not Homo though, but an Australopithecus (or a Paranthropus, if you prefer) robustus. This subadult australopithecine cranium, which was discovered at Swartkrans, South Africa, has puncture marks matching those that a leopard’s canine teeth would leave. Off the top of my head, this is the only piece of direct fossil evidence thus far discovered of Panthera sp. predation on hominoids.

    Extant great apes are occasionally predated upon by big cats. Leopards in Africa prey on both chimpanzees and gorillas (and presumably bonobos too, although I know of no actual data on that), and lions are also known to prey on chimpanzees in areas where these venture out from the forests to savannah habitats (I don’t know if such actual predation events have ever been witnessed, but chimpanzee remains have been found in lions’ faeces). In Asia, tigers and orangutans are sympatric in Sumatra, so presumably the occasional orangutan that ventures down to the forest floor is taken by tigers. Surprisingly perhaps, the Sunda clouded leopard Neofelis diardi is also on record as an orangutan predator. Rijksen & Rijksen-Graatsma (1975)
    report on a clouded leopard individual that learned to kill subadult orangutans living in semi-free conditions at a rehabilitation centre for orangutans rescued from captivity. Over a period of six months (until the researchers managed to trap it), the cat killed seven young orangutans.

    However, although big cat predation certainly is a non-trivial problem for extant apes (and, by analogy, early hominins), it seems that its impact on ape populations is, after all, usually relatively limited. Among leopards at least, it seems that its usually only certain individuals that become habitual ‘ape-eaters’ (e.g., Boesch & Boesch-Achermann, 2000). When there are many of them (as there usually are), great apes are dangerous prey for a medium-sized cat; leopards usually prefer to ambush chimps or gorillas that stray away too far from the safety of the group.

    even chimpanzees have pointed stick technology

    I think there’s every reason to expect that australopithecines were at least as proficient tool-users as extant chimps are (and quite possibly more so, given that they were habitually bipedal and thus able to use their hands more freely). It’s just that the tools they were using were unlikely to be preserved and/or difficult to be recognised as tools, were they to be discovered by paleoanthropologists.

    Boesch, C. & Boesch-Achermann, H. 2000. The Chimpanzees of the Taï Forest. Oxford University Press.

    Rijksen, H.D. & Rijksen-Graatsma, A.G. 1975. Orang utan rescue work in North Sumatra. Oryx 13, 63-73.

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  36. 36. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:33 am 05/14/2012

    I just looked at related blog about Maurice Sendak, and thought that humans have several powerful anti-predator adaptations.

    One is storytelling, which ensures that knowledge of any predator attack will immediately spread around.

    Second is revenge. Humans will return to the place one was killed and try to avenge the death. Sounds obvious, but apes don’t do it. They just leave their dead in place. Actually, african elephants and buffalo seem to be here more advanced than chimpanzees.

    Third, and surprisingly useful is long sleeping. In Kenya, little boys still herd cattle in view of lions and hyenas. When asked why they are not afraid, they say it is midday and predators don’t hunt.

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  37. 37. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:37 am 05/14/2012

    I think supposed leopard bite marks were re-identified as eagle similar to modern Martial Eagle.

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  38. 38. naishd 5:44 am 05/14/2012

    No, the eagle marks pertain to a different hominin: the Taung child (and its associated mammal assemblage)…

    Berger, L. R. 2006. Predatory bird damage to the Taung type-skull of Australopithecus africanus Dart 1925. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 131, 166-168.

    Berger, L. R. & McGraw, W. S. 2007. Further evidence for eagle predation of, and feeding damage on, the Taung child. South African Journal of Science 103, 496-498.

    Some previous Tet Zoo ver 2 coverage here.


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  39. 39. Dartian 6:52 am 05/14/2012

    Referring to my previous comment (#22): Werdelin & Lewis (2005) present an overview of the evolution of the mammalian carnivore guild in East Africa in the Plio-Pleistocene. The take-home message is that the present carnivore assemblage (especially regarding the larger species) is geologically speaking very recent and, in many respects, quite different from the one that was around at the time when our earliest ancestors appeared (for example, there were at least two different species of bears in East Africa around 4 MYA). The respective fossil records of Panthera leo and Panthera pardus don’t go back further than ca. 2 MYA. (There are some fragmentary, approximately lion- and leopard-sized fossil pantherine felines that are a bit older than that, but these fossils are not diagnostic at the species level.)

    apes don’t do it

    Wrong. Chimpanzees respond immediately and aggressively to distress calls from their kin by rushing to their aid. That’s why leopards (unless they manage to make a completely noiseless kill) retreat after their initial ambush strike to avoid retribution; they hang around in the vicinity and wait (for hours and sometimes days) for the attack victim to die from its wounds.

    Furthermore, chimpanzees do not only seek ‘revenge’ on the the leopard. They also engage in systematic pre-emptive attacks. When they suspect the presence of leopards, Taï Forest chimpanzees often actively start searching for them. Upon discovering the leopard, they very aggressively and noisily chase it away (Boesch, 1991).

    If the leopard is cornered, it’s in for trouble. Christophe Boesch once saw how a group of chimpanzees were trying to attack a leopard that was hiding in the hole of a fallen tree. The chimpanzees even used pieces of a fallen branch and used them as clubs, “repeatedly trying to hit or stab the leopard in its hole” (1991:223). The chimpanzees didn’t give up until more than two hours later, after which the leopard hurriedly fled away.

    Chimpanzees at Mahale, Tanzania, have been seen to take even more drastic anti-leopard actions (Byrne & Byrne, 1988). Hiraiwa-Hasegawa et al. (1986) observed how chimpanzees crawled into a leopard’s den while the female leopard was still inside, grabbed at least one leopard cub, and killed it. (The chimpanzees didn’t eat the cub, so this wasn’t a predatory attack.)

    They just leave their dead in place.

    If they’re dead, yes (but usually only after several hours, at least; see above). But if they’re still alive, even if badly injured, the other chimpanzees will often protect them and care for them. Christophe Boesch and Hedwige Boesch-Achermann describe in their book a case where a female chimpanzee had been attacked by a leopard and was so badly injured that its intestines were visible in the wounds on its belly (it had been raked by the leopard’s claws). The other chimpanzees, however, rushed to its aid. Not only did they chase and keep the leopard away, but they also chased away flies from the female’s wounds and licked them clean. Despite its horrendous injuries, the female chimpanzee eventually made a full recovery.

    I think supposed leopard bite marks were re-identified as eagle similar to modern Martial Eagle.

    No. As Darren already said, you’re confusing two different cases.

    Boesch, C. 1991. The effects of leopard predation on grouping patterns in forest chimpanzees. Behaviour 117, 220-242.

    Byrne, R.W. & Byrne, J.M. 1988. Leopard killers of Mahale. Natural History 97(3), 22-26.

    Hiraiwa-Hasegawa, M., Byrne, R.W., Takasaki, H. & Byrne, J.M.E. 1986. Aggression toward large carnivores by wild chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania. Folia Primatologica 47, 8-13.

    Werdelin, L. & Lewis, M.E. 2005. Plio-Pleistocene Carnivora of eastern Africa: species richness and turnover patterns. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 144, 121-144.

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  40. 40. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:25 am 05/14/2012

    Chimps here are on a par with corvids and two steps behind humans.

    Many animals mob predators and are interested in dead of their kin. But humans make sure that predator cannot eat the carcass, look for the cause of death and will purposefully track down that individual killer. Good in preventing predators from specializing on hunting us. Some behaviors of elephants and buffalo may be similar.

    BTW, I read lots of anecdotal cases of tigers and other cats following people in the forest, but apparently not trying to attack them. Anybody knows some summary?

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  41. 41. Dartian 9:38 am 05/14/2012

    Good in preventing predators from specializing on hunting us.

    There is no species of extant predator that has specialised on hunting apes either. (And, frankly, it isn’t particularly likely that there have ever been any in the geological past.)

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  42. 42. Dartian 2:37 am 05/15/2012

    Revisiting Simon’s earlier comment:

    Given how utterly defenceless humans were until the invention of metal it still amazes me that we survived at all given the mega-carnivore guild that existed in the late Pleistocene!

    Walter (2004) has argued that bipedalism probably made early hominids less, rather than more, vulnerable to predation by large carnivores (especially felids). The idea is that an increased stature made the australopithecines and early Homo appear more intimidating and thus reduced their risk of being attacked. Walter points out that, among modern humans who have been attacked/killed by big cats, there seems to be a disproportionately large number of people who were crouching, squatting*, bending over, or lying down at the moment when they were attacked. In other words, they would have looked (in the eyes of the stalking felids) like regular, quadrupedal mammals.

    * Yes, many people have been attacked by man-eating big cats while they were out in the bush crapping or (in the case of women) peeing – a detail that was often left out in the later published accounts by Great White Hunters.

    Walter, M. 2004. Defence of bipedalism. Human Evolution 19, 19-44.

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  43. 43. Margaret Pye 3:40 am 05/16/2012

    Googling “lion-men of Singida” is not very helpful. What on Earth are the details?

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  44. 44. calliarcale 2:53 pm 05/16/2012

    “Third, and surprisingly useful is long sleeping. In Kenya, little boys still herd cattle in view of lions and hyenas. When asked why they are not afraid, they say it is midday and predators don’t hunt.”

    Also, we don’t need to sleep anywhere near as much as cats do, and we can *sweat*. This doesn’t help the cattle the boy was herding, but it certainly helps the boy remain vigilant for attackers. And it helps humans exploit prey that lions cannot. We can work in the heat of the day because we have a more efficient active cooling mechanism than panting.

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  45. 45. Dartian 2:28 am 05/17/2012

    we don’t need to sleep anywhere near as much as cats do

    Cats don’t sleep more than most other mammals do because they need to, but because the can. Sleeping/resting is a great way to save energy, and if you can do that safely (here it obviously helps if you’re a pack-living top predator with no natural enemies), why would you waste energy by being active? If you’re a flesh-eater, you don’t even have to eat all that frequently either.

    we can *sweat*

    But because we sweat – and quite copiously, too – we need to drink often. Which means that, prior to the relatively recent invention of portable water containers, our ancestors had to regularly visit water holes. Which, of course, are favoured big cat (and also crocodile!) ambush sites. In other words, as a supposed anti-predator strategy, sweating would seem to be on the costly side.

    it helps humans exploit prey that lions cannot

    What kind of (large vertebrate) prey is/was there in Africa that prehistoric humans/human ancestors could exploit but lions can’t?

    We can work in the heat of the day

    Well, we can, but it’s not really recommended in the tropics. Ponder the origin of the expression “Only mad dogs and Englishmen”. (Or, for that matter, the fact that the expression “Walking on the sunny side of the street” may have a quite different meaning for someone living in a tropical country than it has for someone living in temperate North America or Europe.)

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  46. 46. Heteromeles 9:38 am 05/17/2012

    Actually, Dartian, I’d recommend Chris McDougall’s Born to Run for a description of how humans from Homo erectus forward used heat loading to kill their prey.

    Note that we’re not talking about the origins of bipedal hominids, we’re talking about how modern humans hunted before we got lazy (lazy, in this case, means everything from using bows and arrows and traps to farming and firearms).

    The thing is, we’re good at jogging in the sun. Yes, it takes a lot of water, but given a hot day, a properly conditioned human (aka everyone, back before 10,000 years BCE or so) can run a wide variety of prey into the ground. We don’t outrun them through speed. Rather, we just keep jogging after them and keep them from shedding the heat loads they accumulated running away from us. When they can’t run any more and collapse, we can kill them with a big rock (aka a hand axe), or even (in the case of Navajo chasing deer for ritual deer skins) by suffocating them by hand.

    Yes, it’s a lot of hard work, which is why farming might seem easier. However, there’s a fair amount of evidence that this is the niche humans were adapted to before we got into the symbiosis and technology game. It’s a pretty gruesome way to hunt, but it was obviously effective for something like 100,000 years. Among the last people to practice it regularly were the Khoisan (although the Navajo may still practice it to obtain ritual deerskins), and they had a wide repertoire of tricks to use on this type of hunting when it wasn’t hot. I’m not sure whether Neanderthals used similar techniques to hunt in Europe, but given the heavy pelts of modern Arctic animals, they might have hunted through hyperthermia as well.

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  47. 47. BrianL 1:18 pm 05/17/2012

    @ Heteromeles,
    While that theory might well be true, there’s always a few things about it that make me wonder. That’s perhaps more a fault of mine than a fault of the Born To Run-theory, though.
    - What sort of distances spent running are we talking about here? Surely early humans would have had home ranges/territories and needed to find their way back home. Also, are we talking about cooperative hunting or solo hunting in this scenario?
    - I can only suppose that even a human conditioned to this sort of hunting would get pretty tired from the whole chase as well as the killing and butchering involved. Will he/they be able to defend their kill against other predators or walk back the entire trail through what must have been rough terrain? I also assume that this traveling would preferentially take place before nightfall.
    - Is it likely that these humans would have home ranges anyway? If so, one would think that many kilometer chases would lead them into the home range of other humans. We can suppose that might at least involve certain risks.
    - Is the hunting being done to feed a group? If so, the carcass would have to be butchered and the meat brought back home. Would only the best meat be brought back? Would a solo hunter be able to take sufficient meat with him the entire way home after being tired from all that activity? Wouldn’t predators or scavengers of any stripe and even the heat of the sun not make it unwise or even unhealthy to carry meat around for hours while in the open? If we’re talking about hours to run down an ungulate to its death, there must certainly be hours involved in walking back home after a succesful hunt, right? Especially when carrying a decent load of meat.
    - Regarding butchering itself, should we imagine these forebears doing so with their bare hands and or the very barest of tools? That must have been pretty hard, especially after running for hours and having to kill a large animal.
    - I also wonder if this type of hunting would be the most energetically efficient way to eat. Surely digging up animals,roots or tubers, chasing predators away from their kills, resource gathering or even fishing would be easier on the energy budget? With the exception of kleptoparasitism these options also seem safer to me than running in the midday sun for kilometers on end with the risk of ending up far away from home, in the range of potentially dangerous other humans and possibly having to travel large distances or rest in the dark while all sorts of potentially dangerous predators are also around and have the advantage of keener senses and the cover of said darkness. And possibly doing all of this while carrying big chunks of meat?

    To be honest, the whole idea seems implausible to me at the moment. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, though.

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  48. 48. Heteromeles 6:29 pm 05/17/2012

    Go read Born to Run. I’m not the expert on this. I found it a fairly convincing argument, at least for the hunting part of it, and I’m not going to reread a book to regurgitate a multi-page argument here.

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  49. 49. Dartian 3:01 am 05/18/2012

    I’d recommend Chris McDougall’s Born to Run for a description of how humans from Homo erectus forward used heat loading to kill their prey.

    I’m not familiar with that book, but if it’s about the so-called ‘endurance running’ (or ‘persistence hunting’) hypothesis, I think I’ll pass; the core of that hypothesis has some pretty serious problems.

    we’re talking about how modern humans hunted before we got lazy

    Yes, I know; I’m reasonably familiar with the literature. And I’m aware of the fact that there has been some debate about the endurance running hypothesis among paleoanthropologists, especially since the publication of Bramble & Lieberman’s (2004) pro-endurance running paper.

    given a hot day, a properly conditioned human (aka everyone, back before 10,000 years BCE or so) can run a wide variety of prey into the ground

    “Everyone”? That’s not even close to being true today among members the remaining few hunter-gatherer societies that practise this form of hunting. Remember that footage from David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals, where the San Bushmen run down a kudu? In that entire group of San people, there were only four (4) individuals who were young and physically fit enough (as well as being, at the same time, old enough to have the necessary experience) to take part in such hunts. This information is from Liebenberg (2006), who is a supporter, not a detractor, of the persistence hunting hypothesis; he acted as a scientific adviser to Attenborough’s film team. The kudu hunt sequence was filmed in October 2001. The BBC documentary film team was following the hunters by car, which allowed the hunters to stop and refill their plastic water bottles during the chase; to cite Liebenberg, this was done “since it was felt that it was unjustifiable to risk [the hunters'] lives for the sake of a film” (2006:1024). (Yes, even experienced San hunters may die from exhaustion and heat stroke during the chase.)

    Pickering & Bunn (2007) and Bunn & Pickering (2010) have pointed out several flaws in the hypothesis that was what made us humans what we are today. Their most compelling argument is that endurance running/persistence hunting is an effective hunting strategy only in certain, very specific environments. Specifically, to be successful such hunts seem to require sandy substrates (meaning: desert or semi-desert environments). In such habitats, tracks are easier to follow, there are fewer hiding places (in the form of vegetation) for the prey animal, and the prey animal gets exhausted faster than it would if it was running on more solid ground. It’s notable that persistence hunting strategies have predominantly (exclusively?) been recorded in human societies living in precisely such dry, sandy, open habitats: San Bushmen in SW Africa, Aborigines in Australia, and Native American tribes in Mexico and the SW United States. Persistence running is not practised by extant hunter-gatherers living in more mesic environments, such as the Hadza people in Tanzania (Pickering & Bunn, 2007).

    And here’s the important point: everything we currently know about the preferred environments of our early hominin ancestors suggests that they mostly lived in relatively mesic and well-vegetated habitats. There is no reason at all to think that they predominantly lived in sandy semidesert habitats where conditions would allow for the practising of persistence hunting. The modern-day/recent historical habitats of San Bushmen, Navahos, or Australian Aborigines should be regarded as specialised extremes rather than as typical examples of Pleistocene hominin living environments.

    farming might seem easier

    Farming is a far more effective way to feed a large group of people than hunting (especially such a time- and energy-consuming hunting method as endurance running). That’s why we humans, once we learn how to do it, tend to stick to farming.

    there’s a fair amount of evidence that this is the niche humans were adapted to before we got into the symbiosis and technology game

    Actually, I’d say there’s no real evidence for that at all (see above). Only speculation resulting from (IMO unjustified) extrapolation from a few environmentally highly marginalised contemporary human populations onto the evolutionary history of our entire species.

    To sum up: the endurance running/persistence hunting method, especially as practised by the San people, admittedly looks spectacular on TV, but it’s probably not a very realistic model of the behaviour of early hominins (or most later hominins, for that matter).

    Bramble, D.M. & Lieberman, D.E. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432, 345-352.

    Bunn, H.T. & Pickering, T.R. 2010. Bovid mortality profiles in paleoecological context falsify hypotheses of endurance running-hunting and passive scavenging by early Pleistocene hominins. Quaternary Research 74, 395-404.

    Liebenberg, L. 2006. Persistence hunting by modern hunter-gatherers. Current Anthropology 47, 1017-1025.

    Pickering, T.R. & Bunn, H.T. 2007. The endurance running hypothesis and hunting and scavenging in savanna-woodlands. Journal of Human Evolution 53, 434-438.

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  50. 50. Dartian 3:51 am 05/18/2012

    I can only suppose that even a human conditioned to this sort of hunting would get pretty tired from the whole chase as well as the killing and butchering involved.

    You suppose correctly. After a hunt (whether it’s successful or not) San hunters typically have to spend the entire following day just recuperating from it (Pickering & Bunn, 2007; cited above).

    Regarding butchering itself, should we imagine these forebears doing so with their bare hands and or the very barest of tools? That must have been pretty hard, especially after running for hours and having to kill a large animal.

    That’s a very good point. The hunters would somehow have to carry their butchering stone tools with them for the entire duration of the hunt (in addition to the spear or whatever weapon they use for killing their prey when they finally catch up with it). They can hardly expect to be so lucky that they manage to make the kill in the immediate vicinity of some rocks suitable for making butchering tools on the spot…

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  51. 51. David Marjanović 10:28 am 05/18/2012

    Endurance running? Yes – towards the circling vultures, before the hyenas arrive. That would be before big-game hunting was developped.

    I’m not sure whether Neanderthals used similar techniques to hunt in Europe, but given the heavy pelts of modern Arctic animals, they might have hunted through hyperthermia as well.

    Would surprise me, considering how famously short & stocky they were.

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  52. 52. vdinets 9:44 pm 05/19/2012

    I haven’t read the book yet, so I’ll hold my skepticism for now. But just for the note, it is not true that endurance hunting was only practiced in arid environments. The so-called kawando hunters of Korea used it until the 1930-s to hunt sika deer. Training to be a kawando took a very long time, and usually only one son in every kawando family was trained, because many people just couldn’t master the art. Killing one deer took about a week. The only reason they were willing to put so much effort into this kind of hunting was that sika velvet was very expensive if sold to Chinese traders. There is a short story about kawando by Valery Jankovski (grandson of the famous Ussuriland pioneer after whom some local wildlife is named). I don’t think it has ever been translated to English.
    Oh, and don’t forget that the niche isn’t vacant: African wild dogs are very good at endurance hunting. I can’t imagine any hominids being able to compete with them, unless they were hunting porcupines, large tortoises and pangolins :-)

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  53. 53. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:05 am 05/21/2012

    Fascinating how this thread evolves :)

    About endurance running – talking about running an antelope and killing it with stone tools – you are extending physiology of modern San hunters into pre-Homo sapiens hominids with different body proportions; plus choosing not to extend back the technology of making hunting tools from perishable organic materials.

    First problem is that hominids used bows, arrows and traps for tens of thousands of years. So sophisticated hunting gear appeared about the time Homo sapiens. And may well be older. Baboons and chimps throw things, there is Homo habilis shelter full of stones, which were presumably gathered for being thrown at predators.

    Another problem is that many animals cannot be hunted this way. We know that Neandertals and australopithecines used heavy stone tools too big to effectively carry and used species which couldn’t be run. Elephants and rhinos don’t let themselves be chased. Warm fur for clothing comes from small mammals: hares, foxes, mustelids which again cannot be chased – they hide and are lost. People catch them in traps, not directly.

    I think prehistoric hominids hunted more like Medieval pheasants – that is much of calories came from plants, small or slow prey. When they hunted, they used ambush, group hunt, spears, traps, snares – virtually everything to make prey as outmatched as possible.

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  54. 54. naishd 6:15 am 05/21/2012

    Very interesting to see this thread evolve, or drift, and I’ve enjoyed the debate on endurance running. One minor comment: much of the debate above centres around Homo sapiens. If endurance running ever was an important bit of behaviour that shaped hominin evolution, it most likely was influential nearer the origin of Homo – as is, in gracile, large H. ergaster-type animals. Maybe these hominins were nomadic (without a fixed camp), maybe females were equally as mobile as males, and maybe they were extremely rare/spottily distributed. If so, we don’t need to worry about the problems posed by transporting heavy chunks of protein, or about territoriality.


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  55. 55. naishd 7:21 am 05/21/2012

    ….. though, I should add that I’ve just re-read Dartian’s comment # 49, and see that this is indeed couched within the context of early Homo evolution. I used to really like endurance running as a hypothesis, but I see that there’s good reason to be sceptical.


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  56. 56. vdinets 11:21 am 05/21/2012

    Jerzy: bow and arrows are a relatively recent invention. Think atlatl :-)

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  57. 57. Heteromeles 6:12 pm 05/21/2012

    Thanks vdinets, you beat me to it. Even the oldest atlatls (and batons de commandement) have a documented history of 25,000 years. Oldest bows are from c.9000-8000 years ago. Stone spear points go back perhaps 300,000 years, but that’s a hand launched missile weapon at best.

    As I think I said upstream, the jogging hunter hypothesis seems to work best for Homo erectus forward. I agree that hominin bipedality did not first evolve for this specialized type of hunting.

    For those who think it was only the San bushmen who hunted this way, check out:

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  58. 58. Dartian 1:06 am 05/22/2012

    I see that there’s good reason to be sceptical

    That’s right. The thing with endurance running/persistence hunting is that, for all its seeming simplicity, it’s actually a very sophisticated way of hunting. In addition to having an extremely well developed ability to read animal tracks and signs and to anticipate animal behaviour, it requires the ability to de a lot of planning and coordination of strategy both before and during the hunt. For the latter, the hunters need to have a language – and there is currently no good evidence that either Homo ergaster or Homo erectus had the required sophisticated linguistic skills (as far as we know, such skills are a hallmark of Homo sapiens, and possibly Homo neanderthalensis, only).

    Also, this way of hunting does seem to require a certain level of technological sophistication. In addition to possessing some kind of projectile technology (for dispatching the prey), you will need to have some kind of portable liquid container* with which to replace the water you lose by sweating during the hunt. Again, there is currently no evidence, and no real reason to believe, that Homo ergaster/erectus grade hominins possessed either kind of technology.

    * And, preferably, some way to attach these items to your person; you probably don’t want to run with your water-filled bag/gourd/hollowed-out coconut/etc. in your hand throughout the entire several-hour hunt. Especially since you’d need to be carrying your weapon(s) in your other hand.

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  59. 59. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:53 am 05/22/2012

    I thought more like stones, slings or wooden sticks possibly hardened on fire.

    BTW, are the earliest stone tools (ones thought to be for cutting animal carcasses) actualy more useful for sharpening wooden spears?

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  60. 60. David Marjanović 8:36 am 05/22/2012

    there is [a] Homo habilis shelter

    How was it identified as such?

    (And that’s before we get to the question of whether to refer H. habilis to Australopithecus instead.)

    and there is currently no good evidence that either Homo ergaster or Homo erectus had the required sophisticated linguistic skills (as far as we know, such skills are a hallmark of Homo sapiens, and possibly Homo neanderthalensis, only)

    That said, this goes both ways: there’s no evidence for the contrary either.

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  61. 61. llewelly 9:01 am 05/22/2012

    Maybe these hominins were nomadic (without a fixed camp), maybe females were equally as mobile as males, and maybe they were extremely rare/spottily distributed. If so, we don’t need to worry about the problems posed by transporting heavy chunks of protein, or about territoriality.
    What about territoriality of other predators, such as lions or hyenas?

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  62. 62. vdinets 11:30 am 05/22/2012

    Jerzy: there are different kinds of stone tools. Some are for slicing meat, others for removing it from bones, and yet others for things like sharpening wooden points. There is a surprising number of people today whose hobby is making and using stone tools, and they can instantly tell you which one is for cleaning hides and which one for chopping wood. I happened to walk into a get-together of these folks in a park recently, and was surprised to see a guy make a perfect Clovis-style spearhead in just an hour. He said it took him two years of training to be able to make them so fast.

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  63. 63. Dartian 11:48 am 05/22/2012

    there’s no evidence for the contrary either

    Actually, there kinda is. A hyoid bone of a Homo erectus (or a Homo erectus-like hominin) is known, and it was morphologically different from that of Homo sapiens and H. neanderthalensis (Capasso et al., 2008). Judging by this, H. erectus was probably not capable of producing similar sounds as we modern humans (and, presumably, Neanderthals).

    Capasso, L., Michetti, E. & D’Anastasio, R. 2008. A Homo erectus hyoid bone: possible implications for the origin of the human capability to speech. Collegium Antropologicum 32, 1007-1011.

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  64. 64. Heteromeles 5:43 pm 05/22/2012

    The counter-argument for Homo erectus, AFAIK, rests on two points:

    1. I think it’s the nuchal ligament in the human neck that has been implicated in Homo sapiens being able to jog (please check me on this, my copy of Born to Run has snuck off). Whether I got the right ligament or not, reportedly Homo erectus is configured like a modern human, while more archaic hominids are not. That suggests that Homo erectus was a distance runner, whatever you want to posit about its communications style. Given how much experience goes into learning how to track, how it can be taught in person with limited shared language (see Tom Brown’s first book, about how his Apache “Grandfather” taught him), and how hard it can be to explain everything in a track in language (see Tom Brown’s attempts to explain how to track in later books), I’m not sure there’s a tight correlation between language and tracking.

    2. I don’t know who noticed this first, so please tell me who I should give credit to. In any case, there’s an apparent biogeographic correlation between the known range of fossil Homo erectus and living mega-herbivores. In other words, where Homo erectus lived (Africa, parts of Europe, southern Asia), there are still elephants, rhinos, and so forth. Outside that region, there are many extinct large mammals (mammoths, woolly rhinos, the megafauna of the New World, Australia, and so forth). I noted this correlation when I was trying to figure out whether Homo erectus could have ever made it into Beringia and North America (the answer is not without clothes, and I’m guessing Homo erectus didn’t have any). I’m pretty sure other researchers have seen this too, but I’m not familiar enough with the Pleistocene extinction literature to cite a source.

    In any case, one simple explanation for why some big mammals survived and others did not is that the species that did survive coevolved with human-style hunting, under predation from Homo erectus. Those that went extinct did not, and were first exposed to human-style hunting in its fully evolved form later on.

    This argument only works if you assume that Homo erectus and Homo sapiens hunted in the same general way.

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  65. 65. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:51 pm 05/22/2012

    I was wondering specifically about those earliest stone tools from austalopithecines, stones hit several times to produce sharp edges. I know that modern humans had lots of specialized stone tools – but Homo sapiens already had projectile weapons, nets, snares and all technology which much reduced the need of evolving endurance hunting.

    BTW, making modern stone age tools seems incredibly cool. Almost as cool as would be having some woolly mammoths around.

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  66. 66. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:57 pm 05/22/2012

    Cool stuff, but now the whole theory about endurance running falls apart because there is no point in hominid evolution when hominids hunted fast running animals but not yet had technology which reduced the need of endurance hunting.

    Anyway, if Homo erectus could cope with elephants, presumably it didn’t exactly need endurance – unless running FROM angry elephants…

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  67. 67. Heteromeles 8:05 pm 05/22/2012

    @Jerzy: you didn’t read the link, (:

    did you? It included a throw-away line about a Kenyan distance runner catching a kudu by braining it with a rock after running it down.

    Similarly, the Navajo hunters who killed deer through running them down throttled the deer with their bare hands. The whole point of the exercise was to obtain a sacred deerskin which had no holes in it. Ergo, it could not be killed by a projectile weapon.

    The whole point of endurance hunting is that it obviates the need for all but the simplest of weapons, or no weapon at all, for killing anything up to the size of a human.

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  68. 68. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:47 am 05/23/2012

    That test is about as valid as assembling a team of champion divers and proving aquatic ape theory. Or a team of strongmen and arguing that ancient humans routinely killed bears with bare hands.

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  69. 69. vdinets 8:58 am 05/23/2012

    I just realized that Tom Brown discussed here is the same person who writes books about tracking. These books are for real tracking what books by Castaneda are for anthropology – an elaborate fake. I knew it as soon as I saw his first books many years ago, but now even Wiki has caught up.

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  70. 70. Dartian 11:55 am 05/23/2012

    I think it’s the nuchal ligament in the human neck that has been implicated in Homo sapiens being able to jog (please check me on this, my copy of Born to Run has snuck off).

    It’s not recommended to rely on non-technical sources in matters like these. I’d strongly suggest that you consult the primary literature instead.

    That suggests that Homo erectus was a distance runner

    That just suggests that Homo erectus presumably could run (which nobody, AFAIK, has ever disputed). How do you know (or how does Chris McDougall know) what distances it ran? What if Homo erectus was a fiercely territorial species (sort of like modern-day spotted hyaenas or lions are) which would not dare to follow prey animals for tens of kilometers for fear of ending up in a hostile neighbouring tribe’s territory?

    I’m not sure there’s a tight correlation between language and tracking.

    How do you coordinate your actions with your fellow hunters if you don’t have a proper language with which to convey the hunting strategy to them? (Remember that these kinds of hunts – among modern hunter-gatherer tribes at least – typically last for hours and hours; you’ll need to have the cognitive skills to be able to plan at least that far ahead.)

    there’s an apparent biogeographic correlation between the known range of fossil Homo erectus and living mega-herbivores

    Correlation does not imply causation.

    Also be careful with what you call “Homo erectus“. According to the strictest interpretations, true Homo erectus only ever lived in Asia. (The Italian “Homo erectus“that Capasso et al. in my earlier comment were referring to should probably actually be called Homo heidelbergensis.)

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  71. 71. vdinets 3:25 pm 05/23/2012

    Dartian: coordinating hunts doesn’t take that much linguistic skill. Wolves do it with howls.
    I think a much stronger argument against the endurance running hypothesis is that you have to have all adaptations to long-distance running before even trying, so it doesn’t really explain anything.

    Personally, I still think some elements of “aquatic ape” theory might be correct. Human cooling system is not particularly effective (African wild dogs cope with heat much better), but it is insanely water-intensive. I can’t see how it could evolve unless the species in question was confined to lakeshores and riparian corridors. Note that the Sun bushmen are the only ethnic group, extant or extinct, known to live in an area with no surface water, and they were only able to do so due to unusual abundance of plants accumulating accessible water.

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  72. 72. Heteromeles 4:25 pm 05/23/2012

    @Dartian: I’m not in academia, and I no longer share the ivory tower belief that it’s necessary for me (rather than my institution) to blow a few hundred dollars getting references for an argument I’m not invested in. Since it’s obvious that you haven’t read McDougall’s Born to Run, you’re scarcely in a position to pass judgement on his scholarship or lack thereof, and since he is (by all evidence) a practicing ultra-marathoner, he’s probably more of an authority than most academics. If reading something by a non-PhD is against your standards, you can reference Bernd Heinrich’s Why We Run, which makes many of the same points, also from the author’s personal experience. With, I might add, very good references.

    @vdinets: Um, if the San, the Navajo, and the Tarahumara Indians are all distance running practitioners, I don’t think there’s a good correlation between available surface water and the willingness to run twenty miles. If anything, the opposite appears to be true. We don’t see Mississippi or the Amazon producing champion marathoners, after all.

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  73. 73. Dartian 1:45 am 05/24/2012

    he’s probably more of an authority than most academics

    My comment was referring to the nuchal ligaments that you mentioned in comment #64. Is McDougall an authority on the palaeomorphology of those ligaments in early hominins, or is he not?

    If he’s not, then all his practical running experience (which I’m sure is considerable) doesn’t really tell us anything relevant at all about the behaviour of early Homo, I’m afraid.

    If reading something by a non-PhD is against your standards

    Alright, I realise that what I wrote might have come across slightly the wrong way. What I meant to say is, that there is a pretty considerable body of technical literature on early hominin palaeomorphology out there. I’d be highly uncomfortable with accepting any claims about (say) nuchal ligament configuration in Homo ergaster/erectus just from a second- or a third-hand source. I want to know what the science is based on. (If it’s not based on science at all, then, frankly, I’m not really interested.)

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  74. 74. David Marjanović 6:29 pm 05/30/2012

    A hyoid bone of a Homo erectus (or a Homo erectus-like hominin) is known

    Oh. I had missed that.

    I no longer share the ivory tower belief that it’s necessary for me (rather than my institution) to blow a few hundred dollars getting references for an argument I’m not invested in.

    What is this nonsense about money? Write to the authors, and they’ll send you the pdfs for free. Frankly, if you had ever been in the ivory tower, you’d know this.

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  75. 75. Steve Diamond 10:04 pm 06/11/2012

    For film of living Tsavo maneless lions, watch out for an episode of the television show The Jeff Corwin Experience. The particular show was titled: Kenya – Hyena, Queen of the Beasts.

    The program features Dr. Bruce Patterson, who had radio collared one of the lions. The program asserted that the animals were healthy (not diseased, or maneless from mange). It even suggested that in Tsavo hyenas do not try to compete for carcasses with these maneless lions; the big cats are too dangerous. This was put forward as an indicator of hyena intelligence – not to mess with these predators the way they do with lions elsewhere. Dr. Patterson observed that prides contain one male.

    Corwin asked why the lions are maneless. Dr. Patterson did not know, but suggested that some factor in the local environment may be the cause.

    (I was surprised to see a hyena in the show pacing, walking the way a camel or giraffe does. I had never noticed this. I’ve now seen a hyena do it on another show.)

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  76. 76. IndyCA35 1:50 pm 01/23/2013

    Until the 1940s or so, it was common for deer hunters in the northeast USA to run down whitetail deer. It was more a relentless pursuit than chasing. The hunter would jump the deer and the deer would run a couple of hundred yards. Then the hunter would jump the deer again and the deer would run a little less far. Eventually, after a couple of days, the hunter could walk right up to the deer.

    It was thought that the deer had a nervous breakdown, not being accustomed to such behavior by predators. Also, the deer would circle back. Whitetails seldom go farther than a mile from where they were born. As for butchering, one pocket knife is sufficient to take out the guts. The deer can then be dragged or carried home.

    This practice stopped due to more deer hunters being in the woods. If you tried it today, chances are you would drive the deer past another hunter, who would shoot it and claim it.

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  77. 77. Steve Diamond 3:18 pm 08/27/2013

    See the Tsavo maneless lions on TV tonight, in the United Kingdom. The TV show is called The Jeff Corwin Experienc; the episode is Hyena, Queen of the Beasts. Time 4.40am Weds 28th August (sorry for the short notice, only just seen it listed) to 5:30am. Corwin meets Dr. Bruce Patterson, who is doing a study. The animals are seen lying under bushes. The males have sideburns only. Animal Planet channel, that’s on Sky 523. There is also Animal Planet +1 on Sky 549.

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  78. 78. Bahamuttone 6:21 am 09/15/2013

    Well to get glare free photos of glass covered subject you should use a polarizer filter ^^

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