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A matter of pride: Unraveling lion mystery

Mike Paha from the Field Museum’s exhibits team holds up a DR detector as part of an X-ray process to look inside one of the lions of Tsavo on November 21, 2017. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

One of the two man-eating Tsavo lions on display at the Field Museum may be due an apology.

Together, the famed lions are estimated to have eaten some 35 railroad workers in colonial Kenya in 1898, dragging their unsuspecting victims out of tents in the dark of night.

Scientists have said that one of the lions likely gobbled up two dozens humans, while the other ate closer to half that.

Now, some Field scientists say they may have gotten the lions a bit mixed up. This week, they’ve been using a high-tech portable X-ray machine to try to sort it all out.

Raul Vasquez with Samsung and Don Falduto with RPS Imaging review X-rays of the lions of Tsavo at the Field Museum on November 21, 2017. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

“We need to have it correct for the public and for the historic integrity of the display,” said Tom Gnoske, one of those scientists and the Field’s assistant collections manager.

A British colonel and engineer by the name of John H. Patterson shot and killed both lions in December 1898, nine months after the animals began their almost nightly attacks.

Patterson had his trophies turned into rugs. In the 1920s, Patterson sold them to the Field Museum, which then had the pelts stuffed and put on display, where they remain today — one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

The animals skulls’ were also put on display, with labels telling visitors which skull belonged to which stuffed pelt. In 2009, research looking at bone and hair samples concluded, in part, that the skulls had been mislabeled and mixed-up. So the labels were changed.

But that decision wasn’t universally accepted.

Gnoske argued that the original identification was correct. He and another scientist, Julian Kerbis Peterhans, pointed to a distinctive marking on the face of one of the lion pelts, which they say, indicates bullet wounds — something they say are visible in the jaw of one of the skulls, but not the other.

Staff from the Field Museum, Samsung and RPS Imaging review X-rays of one of the lions of Tsavo in search of bullet holes to see if its skull matches its skin on November 21, 2017. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

“When we said, ‘You shouldn’t switch them,’ we argued about it with one of my bigger bosses,” Gnoske said Tuesday. “He said, ‘You’ve got to prove it.'”

So on Tuesday, a small group of people huddled around a portable Samsung GM85 X-ray machine pointed toward the two lions, appearing ready to pounce in the manufactured half-light.

It will take detailed analysis by a radiologist to decide definitively if the labels should be switched once again, museum staff said.


But in the meantime, the scientists stared in fascination at what the X-rays revealed, including ghostly gray-and-white images of the dozens of nails used to keep the pelts in place.

“The specimens were shot in 1898 and they’re still telling us new things,” said Peterhans, an adjunct curator at the Field.