Denizens of Madrid’s Miocene Woods: The “Dog-Bears”

The so-called dog-bears, or hemicyonines were actually much closer to bears than to dogs; in fact, most specialists classify them as just a subfamily Hemicyoninae within the bear family or Ursidae, although there have been proposals to grant family status to the group, as Hemicyonidae.
But in spite of their close affinity with modern bears, these animals would have looked quite un-bear like to a modern observer, because of their body porportions and gait. One good example of this would be Hemicyon sansaniensis, a species typical of the group and widespread in the Miocene of Western Europe, including the Madrid region.
Hemicyon sansaniensis had the body mass of a small brown bear, but it differed from any bear in having a longer back and longer metapodials (foot-bones), which were straight and parallel and indicate a digitigrade posture. Such body proportions are actually more similar to those of a big cat, and it is likely that Hemicyon would stalk its prey and hunt actively, a bit a like a big cat.

Life reconstruction of Hemicyon sansaniensis
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But the dentition of Hemicyon was certainly not cat-like. It was more adapted to processing meat than that of “normal” bears, but it was also fit for dealing with other types of food, including vegetable matter.
Like the bear-dogs of the family Amphicyonidae, these animals are good examples of the evolution of caniform carnivorans during the Miocene, when they filled rather broad niches as hunters, scavengers and omnivores. But such niches would be compromised by the arrival of the true big cats, and especially of the sabertooths, which soon became the dominant hunters of large prey and established new rules for the Miocene large carnivore guild.

Entrevista a Mauricio Antón en Ciencia al Cubo

Este domingo 20 de Julio a las 11:30, América Valenzuela entrevista a Mauricio Antón en el programa “Ciencia al Cubo”, de Radio Nacional.
Podéis escuchar el programa en directo a través de la página web del programa, aquí:

http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/audios/ciencia-al-cubo/

En la misma web se colgará el podcast encuanto esté disponible.
¡No os lo perdáis!

Entrevista RNE ciencia al Cubo

Denizens of Madrid’s Miocene woods: the Bear-Dogs

For most of the early and midlle Miocene, cat-like carnivorans had to play a subordinate role in the predator guild of Madrid’s woodlands and prairies. The dominant hunters and scavengers in those ecosystems belonged to the Caniformia (which is the “dog half” of the order Carnivora), and they included two groups known with the confusing popular names of “Bear-Dogs” and “Dog-Bears”. The “Dog-Bears” or hemicyonines, were close relatives of today’s bears, and will be discussed in a different post.
The “Bear-Dogs” or Amphicyonids, were neither dogs nor bears, but a separate family distantly related to both. Most of them had a rather unspecialized dentition with a nearly complete set of premolars and molars, resembling in some ways the dentition of dogs, and suggesting a similarly varied diet. But their skeleton was not especially dog-like in most cases, and instead it resembled a mixture between a bear and a big cat in terms of body proportions and locomotor adaptations.
One of the most common and well-known members of this family was Amphicyon major, an animal similar in size to a modern brown bear and whose remains are found in several fossil sites in Madrid. Well adapted to a life as an active hunter, scavenger and omnivore, it would keep the modest cats of the time (the largest of which was leopard-sized) easily at bay.

Here is a reconstruction of Amphicyon major in the middle Miocene environments of Casa de Campo, an area that today is covered with mediterranean bush and woodland, but which during the Aragonian was part of a savannah-like floodplain with gallery woods near water. These two individuals are disputing a carcass of Triceromeryx.
amphicyon Casa de Campo

Remembering Alan Turner

Alan Turner was so much more than a collaborator to me. For two decades, he was my informal paleontology teacher, my mentor, creative partner and close friend. Together we produced several books and many scientific papers, but we also shared family vacations and flamenco evenings. Losing him over two years ago was such a shock that it actually didn’t seem real. In many ways, he is still far more real, for some of us, than his absence. We have his work, and a whole lot of great memories that feel today as fresh as ever.

To celebrate Alan’s work, Quaternary Science Reviews has now published a tribute volume including an introduction, an obituary and an impressive collection of scientific papers. Courtesy of Elsevier, for the next 50 days you can access the obituary by following this link:

http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1PHkL-4PRZkUm

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Alan Turner in Madrid, summer of 2009

Denizens of Madrid’s Miocene woods: the Mastodons

One of the most important faunal events during the early Miocene of Europe was the arrival of the first proboscideans, or elephant relatives, some 19 million years ago. Those wonderful beasts left their African home when land bridges allowed, and spread throughout Eurasia, eventually to cross the Bering bridge into North America. Wherever they arrived, they did not simply become a part of the landscape: they changed it, acting on the vegetation like a sort of biological bulldozers that contributed to the spread of grassy patches and to keep the forests at bay.

Skull and reconstructed head of the mastodon Gomphotherium angustidens, based on fossils from sites in central Spain
Gomphotherium Head low res

Those early proboscideans, popularly known as mastodons, were rather different from our modern elephants. Gomphotherium, the most widespread genus from the early and middle Miocene, is a good example of the classic mastodon. Short-legged and robust, it had a body mass comparable to that of an Asian elephant, but was considerably less tall at the shoulders. Like most proboscidean species of the Miocene, it had four tusks, one pair on the maxilla and another one at the end of the elongated mandible, giving the animal a bizarre (to our eyes) appearance. And its cheek teeth had a more simple pattern, adapted to process softer vegetation than in the case of true elephants, mostly leaves and twigs -no grass.

Here is a life reconstruction of Gomphotherium in its environment
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Ever since then and until the end of the Pleistocene ( a “mere” 10,000 years ago), the landscapes of Eurasia and North America were never without proboscideans of one kind or another, often with more than one species coexisting at the same time. For that reason, African and Indian wilderness offer important references to imagine how the vegetation of prehistoric Eurasia and North America would have been influenced by the action of such phenomenal creatures.

Reconstructing sabertooths… How is it done?

In “Sabertooth” I have included a few notes about the reconstruction methods that I used for preparing the illustrations of the book. But there was only so much I could pack into a section of a chapter of a book which already covers such a range of sabertooth-related topics.

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So if you are REALLY curious about the whole process of reconstruction, from fossil site to finished illustration, I suggest that you download the video “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life”.

Get it now from Wild World Visuals Store:

http://wildworldvisuals.com/es/descargas-video/25-fdggfdgfds.html

Watch a clip from the film:

Big Cat Warriors: Introducing the lions of Savuti

I have been fascinated by Savuti and its lions ever since I first watched that masterly film by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, “Eternal Enemies”. Since then I have been privileged to visit Savuti 3 times, and in each occasion that beautiful, haunting place has shown me a totally different face.

The Savuti “Marsh” is the relic of a large inland lake, which dried long ago, and is now fed by the erratic Savuti channel. It occupies a large area in the west of the Chobe National Park, Botswana. Our first visit was in 1993, when the Savuti channel had been dry for several years. We were in the middle of the dry season and the place looked like the ideal location for a crepuscular Western film. In the bone-dry plain that once was a marsh, we came across the legendary Maome pride, which showed us its most powerful side -that of the giant killers. They had hunted a huge male giraffe and were taking turns to get inside the prey’s ribcage to eat their fill. Then they would come out and walk towards the shade of a nearby acacia, passing just a few meters from us. One of them actually was too full to continue and lay down to rest in the shadow of our vehicle! That was what I call an introduction to Savuti, to wild lions and to wild Africa!

Here is one of the Savuti lionesses at the giraffe kill in Ausgust 1993. A spotted hyaena looks from a safe distance
savuti leona jirafa hiena

When one of the lionesses leaves the kill and passes a few meters from us, we observe the wounds in her hind leg, probably inflicted during the hunt
leona con herida camina

In 1995 we returned to Savuti. It was the end of the rainy season, and the marsh, alhough waterless, was much greener than the previous time. And the lions showed us a different facet too: their family life. Lionesses and cubs relaxed and played among the greenery, in a scene that was as idillic as the previous time had been stark.

A bunch of playful lion cubs of different ages frolic in the green Savuti in april 1995
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A fallen tree becomes part of their playground
SavutiLionPlay3

But we were as yet to meet the legendary male lions of Savuti. These warriors of the feline world spend most of their time on patrol, and checking nearby prides, moving through an enormous extension of land and occasionally leaving the protected areas -only to be shot by reckless human hunters. At least that was the case until Botswana finally took the bold step of banning trophy hunting altogether.

Then last year we finally returned to Savuti, to find the place totally unrecognizable. Subtle tectonic movements had caused the Savuti channel to flow once more, and the marsh was again true to its name, teeming with water birds and attracting herbivores from miles around in the middle of the dry season. And then, at long last, we came across the feline lords of Savuti. A wild animal does not exist in isolation, and it is impossible to separate the Savuti cats from the stark beauty of the place where they live. These lion prides have survived here through the harshest environmental changes, and now they are adapting to a wet Savuti Marsh once again. We humans go there when we can to marvel at their power, but the lions are tightly tied to that merciless patch of land.
I can hardly wait to get back to Savuti and see those incredible felines again!

An image of raw feline power
savuti male lion 1

Seeing these majestic males patrolling the Gubatsa hills with a castle-like baobab in the background was an epic image, like something out of Middle-Earth…
savuti lions and baobab

Want to see the Savuti male lions in all their glory? Follow this link and watch a clip from my upcoming film about the big cats of Botswana:

Smilodon chase, or changing our minds while we sketch.

The chase scene with Smilodon and Macrauchenia which appears at the top of this blog’s home page was first conceived as an African scene with the sabertooth Lokotunjailurus in pursuit of some Hipparion horses. Years later I needed to do an illustration of a South American Smilodon hunting (for the “National Geographic book of Prehistoric Mammals”), and I picked up one of the many preliminary sketches I had done for that old scene, and simply replaced Lokotunjailurus for Smilodon and Hipparion for Equus (Amerhippus).

Here is one early sketch for the South American scene, with Smilodon and Equus
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Then I realized that the 2 species shown were North American invaders, would it not be better to include a native South American ungulate in the scene? So I drew Macrauchenia as the target, instead of the horse.

In this next version, Macrauchenia is the sabertooths’ intended victim
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This illustration was intended to fill a double page spread in the book, so the next thing I did was to add more elements in order to fill a horizontal format.

In this third version, a mixed herd of Macrauchenia and horses flees from the surprise attack of the sabertooths
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But at one point I realized that in this composition the book’s gutter would cut the adult Macrauchenia in half, and also the animals would look a bit small in the scene. So I deleted the horses, replaced the right-hand horse for a Macrauchenia, zoomed-in on the scene to bring the animals closer, and shifted the center of the scene slightly to the left so that the gutter spared the main Macrauchenia.

Here is the next version, a zoomed-in composition, minus the horses

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What I did not anticipate was the designer’s decision to include a black band with vertical text on the right-hand margin of the spread. This pushed the whole scene to the left and now it was one of the leaping sabertooths which was nearly severed by the gutter! Back then I was still painting in oils so I could not change the scene. If I had painted it digitally by layers it would have been a relatively simple matter of pushing elements to one or the other side…

And here is the finished illustration!
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This, by the way, was one of my last oil paintings. Creating so many complex scenes for this book, and doing it all in record time, left me utterly exhausted, and I felt it might be the right time to explore the possibilities of the digital media. And so it was!

Composing with giants -and using predators as sideshows!

In the previous post we looked at the use of perspective for establishing the relative sizes of animals in a scene. One thing that I have found time and again is that my brain keeps deceiving me into representing the world as a rather flat scenery, and at the same time to minimize the size differences between animals.

Several years ago I started making sketches for a scene showing Paraceratherium, the rhinoceros-like giant indricothere of the Eurasian Oligocene. In order to make its huge size more apparent, I decided to put a couple of wolf-sized predators of the genus Hyaenodon in the foreground. I first attempted to sketch this scene purely from my imagination and without any perspective lines. It was a horizontal composition with the horizon positioned low in the frame, which emphasized the large size of the indricotheres -or so I thought.

Here is my preliminary sketch for the scene, withouth any perspective lines
boceto-1

I went on to the next stage of the process, drawing perspective lines and incorporating the measurements of the animals. And, oh surprise, the indricotheres looked so much bigger now!

And here is the next version, with perspective lines in place and the sizes of the animals corrected accordingly
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In my third version I re-arranged the positions of the animals in the frame, especially the closest indricothere whose head was shown more laterally in order to make its proportions more evident. (I must confess that seeing the sketches all these years later, I find the previous version more interesting!)

Here is the third version, which served as the basis for my drawing as published in the book “Mammoths, Sabertooths and Hominids”
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And the final, published version:
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A few years later I revisited the Paraceratherium theme, and my premininary sketch was built a bit like the previous scene, with a low horizon and the animals set largely against the sky. But I did not intend to include the hyaenodontids this time.

Here is the approved sketch for my more recent Paraceratherium scene
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But as I progressed with the illustration, I found that I was missing a reference to really put the size of the beasts in perspective. I had to admit I was not ready to leave out my favorite sideshows from the Oligocene. So welcome back Hyaenodon! No indricothere scene is the same without them!

And here is the final scene, with sideshow-Hyaenodon included!
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How big was a marsupial sabertooth? Establishing relative size in a scene

As some of you have already noticed, many of my sketches are crossed by a multitude of lines, whose purpose may not be clear at first sight. Well, all of them have a purpose, although not all have the same one. Some sets of lines are there to serve as a sort of grid, to make the composition more easily replicable. Others are there to show me more clearly the proportions of the working rectangle while I build the composition, so I can check if the elements are balanced. Finally, some lines are there to establish a persepctive in order to control the relative size of animals and objects in the scene. For this purpose I normally create a one-point perspective with its vanishing point in the horizon.
Such a simple procedure gives me a pleasant sense of relief regarding doubts about how big or how small one animal species would look beside another, and some times the results are surprising, even though I have the measurements and know the dimensions of the animals beforehand.
One example is the preliminary sketch I did for a scene showing a pair of marsupial sabertooths of the genus Thylacosmilus, together with some glyptodons and ground sloths. In my very first sketches I tended to show the distant sloths and glyptodons as rather larger animals, but when I put my perspective lines in place I found that these animals would have to look rather less impressive. After all, these Pliocene edentates were way smaller than their later, gigantic relatives from the Pleistocene. The composition lost some spectacularity but gained in accuracy!

Here is the sketch with the perspective lines
thylaco-scene-sketch-sizes

And here is the finished oil painting with all the animals in place.
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