The lion (Panthera leo) is well known throughout the world. Their thunderous roars conjure up images of circus performers and the pride of feline hunters who roam the plains of Africa. Once endemic to many parts of Europe, India, the Caucasus, and Africa; lions are now restricted to scattered protected areas in parts of Africa and India. They are listed as endangered and regionally extinct in many places due to habitat loss and poaching.
Here, we’ll learn what’s unique about lion teeth, how many sets they have in a lifetime, and what they’re used for. Then, we’ll take a deeper look at the special uses of the four types of teeth and see just how hard a lion’s bite really is. Finally, we’ll explore why poachers might want to hunt lion teeth, and what you can do to help protect these awesome felines.
Lion cubs start their lives drinking only mother’s milk. When they are about three months old, they start eating small pieces of meat. By this time, they’ve grown all their primary teeth and can effectively chew on their young teeth. At about three months old, they begin to erupt their permanent teeth. By the time they are 15 months old, they have no baby teeth, just the adult dentition they will carry with them for life.
Lions can live up to 15 years in the wild. If they live to this advanced age, their teeth will often wear down to the point where they must rely on other pride members for food. However, lions live in groups. As long as the lions have enough food, old lions can still live by biting on meat.
Lions are obligate, generalist carnivores that occupy the apex of their environment and key predator niches. This means they hunt and eat a lot of meat. Lions are the most diurnal (day active) of the big cats and will eat carrion when they come across it. Because they need teeth to hunt and eat, they have several different types of teeth to do the job.
Lions have a total of 30 teeth; 12 incisors, 4 canines, 10 premolars and 4 molars
Lions have 12 incisors; six on top and six on the bottom. In the upper jaw, the angular incisors closest to the canines are larger than the central and lateral incisors, with spaces between them and the canines. Lions use these teeth to grab and pull food and scrape meat from bones. They also use them to groom themselves and other members of their pride.
Lions have four huge canine teeth. They use these teeth to grab and hold fleeing prey. The canines can grow up to 7 cm long, are conical, and curve slightly back toward the skull. They are not as sharp as the canines of a domestic cat; instead, they are blunted and used to pinch the nose or windpipe of prey. Lions kill by strangulation or suffocation, and their canines play an important role in this process.
The premolars and molars of lions perform the same function; cutting meat. They are called carnassials; they have tall, pointed crowns with the top and bottom snapping together like a pair of scissors. These shearing teeth, combined with the lion’s ability to open its hinged jaw nearly a foot wide, liken its mouth to a pair of giant, double-sharp scissors.
What do lions do with their teeth?
Lions, like many felines, eat nothing but meat. They do not eat hard parts of their prey (bones, cartilage), nor any fruits or vegetables. Because of this, their teeth were reduced to two specific functions. First, to catch prey, and second, to chop up food.
catch the prey
Lions attack with incisors and canines. Ideally, they’ll bite the animal’s throat or nose (zebras and wildebeest are favorite targets). Once they have dragged their prey to the ground, the lions use their powerful canines to close the windpipe, smothering the animal to death. It is not uncommon for canine teeth to break due to prey struggling, sometimes kicking or even rolling over the lion.
A second use of the lion’s teeth was to cut meat. Lions don’t really chew; they don’t crumble or crush their food before swallowing. They don’t; since they only eat meat, lions only need to cut the meat into smaller portions to swallow. Their teeth are great for cutting meat, they are actually unable to crush harder parts like bone or cartilage. Lions are limited to eating soft parts of animals, such as meat and organs.
How hard is a lion’s bite?
Lion jaws are unique among carnivores. They are short, have few teeth, and can hinge wide. Lions also have very strong jaw muscles, and oversized canine teeth. All of this combined means that the Lion has a powerful bite—up to 1,000 PSI. They don’t use all that force to crush bones, though; they use it exclusively to grab and strangle their prey.
poaching and teeth
Lions that once roamed many parts of the world are now threatened in their native habitats. Most populations are scattered across national parks and game reserves, but that doesn’t stop people from poaching them. Lions were often killed as revenge for dead livestock, or as trophies for wealthy hunters. Additionally, they are illegally hunted for their skin, claws and teeth. Lions are often poached just for these parts, with poachers harvesting their teeth and claws for the illegal trade.
This is important to keep in mind; if you see lion teeth for sale, whether ground into medicine, strung into jewelry or art, these teeth most likely came from boiled lions. Avoid buying any parts from lions, even if they claim to have been obtained legally.
I am broadly interested in how human activities influence the ability of wildlife to persist in the modified environments that we create.
Specifically, my research investigates how the configuration and composition of landscapes influence the movement and population dynamics of forest birds. Both natural and human-derived fragmenting of habitat can influence where birds settle, how they access the resources they need to survive and reproduce, and these factors in turn affect population demographics. Most recently, I have been studying the ability of individuals to move through and utilize forested areas which have been modified through timber harvest as they seek out resources for the breeding and postfledging phases. As well I am working in collaboration with Parks Canada scientists to examine in the influence of high density moose populations on forest bird communities in Gros Morne National Park. Many of my projects are conducted in collaboration or consultation with representatives of industry and government agencies, seeking to improve the management and sustainability of natural resource extraction.
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