One of the benefits of spending a lot of time in any particular wildlife area is that you get to recognize individual animals. It is human nature to try to learn as much as possible about these animals.
Trying to guess the age of an animal can be an interesting exercise. Reference works indicate that in the wild, lions and leopards can reach approximate ages of between eleven and seventeen years. This is a fairly short life span when you consider that they are quite large animals.
One of the most reliable methods of getting some idea of the age of a big cat is to look at the condition of its teeth. This is often easier than you would think, as many of the cats are very relaxed and will allow close approaches by vehicles. Lions and leopards yawn often and this allows one a chance to check their teeth, either with binoculars or by snapping a photo.
The images that accompany this text were all chosen for their illustrative purpose rather than their aesthetic value.
Lion yawning – all teeth present and still sharp.
In the first image, a male lion is finishing off a big yawn. His four large canine teeth all still have sharp, albeit slightly rounded tips. He still has all his incisor teeth. The only sign of aging is some darkening of the enamel at the base of his canines. That typically starts once the cats are older than five years of age.
Lion yawning – one canine broken and some incisors are missing.
The second image is a male lion with mouth open. This lion has broken off the end of his left upper canine and that same tooth is showing signs of discoloration and cracking. He has also lost some of the incisors in his lower jaw. Judging by this, he would be an older animal than the first lion or one further along in his life cycle at least.
The last image is of a male leopard yawning. He has all his incisors, but has broken his lower right canine.
Leopard yawning – one broken canine, but all incisors are present.
A broken tooth does not necessarily mean big trouble for these animals; it is all part of a cumulative aging process. Big cats that are forced to scavenge more often are likely to damage their teeth on bones sooner than those living in prey-rich areas. Teeth are important for killing and dismembering prey, as well as for fighting with rivals of their own or other species.
In extreme cases, big cats that have badly damaged three or more canine teeth may be forced to seek out smaller and weaker prey animals that are easier for them to kill.
Text and images by Grant Atkinson