Cooper, D. M., Yamaguchi, N., Macdonald, D. W. et al. 2023. Getting to the meat of it: The effects of a captive diet upon the skull morphology of the lion and tiger. Animals 13(23), 3616.

Zoo animals are crucial for conserving and potentially re-introducing species to the wild, yet it is known that the morphology of captive animals differs from that of wild animals. It is important to know how and why zoo and wild animal morphology differs to better care for captive animals and enhance their survival in reintroductions, and to understand how plasticity may influence morphology, which is supposedly indicative of evolutionary relationships. Using museum collections, we took 56 morphological measurements of skulls and mandibles from 617 captive and wild lions and tigers, reflecting each species’ recent historical range. Linear morphometrics were used to identify differences in size and shape. Skull size does not differ between captive and wild lions and tigers, but skull and mandible shape does. Differences occur in regions associated with biting, indicating that diet has influenced forces acting upon the skull and mandible. The diets of captive big cats used in this study predominantly consisted of whole or partial carcasses, which closely resemble the mechanical properties of wild diets. Thus, we speculate that the additional impacts of killing, manipulating and consuming large prey in the wild have driven differentiation between captive and wild big cats.

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