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Lion duo that ate as many as 135 people probably did so because of a toothache

Two of history's most bloodthirsty lions might have eaten dozens of people simply because of a toothache, Discover reports.

The so-called "Tsavo two" were a pair of mane-less male lions that killed railroad workers in Kenya over the course of nine months in 1898. The lions were eventually shot by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who reported the pair had eaten as many as 135 people. Isotopic analysis in 2009 estimates that number was more like 35 people — nevertheless, since lions don't usually eat people, the question has lingered for over a century: What drove the Tsavo two to seek so many humans as prey?

Looking at one of the animal's skulls, researchers initially guessed that a tooth-abscess made it hard for the lion to eat its natural prey, so it started going after the delicious, papery skin of people. A new study, published Wednesday in Scientific Reports, doesn't quite agree. Instead, creating molds of the Tsavo two's teeth, researchers found that the man-eating felines' pearly whites were more similar to zoo lions' teeth than wild lions' teeth.

That's pretty telling: Zoo lions eat softer foods, while wild lions have to deal with delivering kill-bites to thick-skinned animals like zebras. "Dental injuries ... may have induced shifts in feeding onto softer foods," the researchers wrote. People, with their thin skin, made a satisfying snack for the hungry Tsavo pair.

The researchers concluded:

[I]t wasn't desperation that drove the Tsavo lions to nosh on humans, but perhaps convenience. The railroad workers, most of whom came from lion-free South Asia and were unfamiliar with local ways to avoid being eaten, were simply easier for a dentally-challenged lion to catch and kill than faster, tougher-skinned buffalo, antelope, and zebra. [Discover]

There you have it: Never underestimate the power of a toothache.