Run, wolf, Run!

Evolution has shaped the wolf as a long-distance runner. The iberian lynx may stalk with endless patience and the brown bear ambles ponderously on plantigrade feet, but the main weapon of the wolf is its ability to run tirelessly over enormous distances. Such stamina is originally and adaptation for surveying large territories and for chasing fast prey animals to exhaustion, but it has also served as a pre-adaptation for a new challenge: to escape man’s prosecution.
The Iberian wolf lives now like an outlaw, cornered by the action of human greed, ignorance and cruelty. True, the wolf also has got friends among humans, who are not just going to sit and watch, but its enemies “play with marked cards”, taking advantage of social inertia and inherited privilege.

A quick sketch of a trotting wolf
lobo al trote 1 baja res

I try to capture the elegance of the wolf with quick, 10-minute drafts, which I force myself to quit before my pencil has time to dwell in too much detail. The strategy to defend the wolf, by contrast, has to be a labour of patience and time. Meanwhile, the wolf needs to keep trusting its sinewy legs for survival. It has to keep running while we come to the rescue. Hopefully it won’t be too late by then.
As a tiny contribution to stop the abuses against the wolf, I have signed the petition below. Will you?

Spain’s “scapewolf”: the government against the Iberian wolf

Wolf biologists often use the term “scapewolf” to refer to the individual animal occupying the lowest postition in the pack’s “pecking order”. The life of that creature can get hard enough for it to leave the safety of the pack and try its luck as a lone wolf.
Today the Iberian wolf has become a sort of scapegoat or “scapewolf” for a troubled and confused Spain. The problem is that, as a species, the wolf has nowhere to go.
Back in the hopeful seventies, naturalist and filmmaker Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente managed, almost single-handedly, to change the perception that the Spanish society had of the wolf, from hateful vermin to the ultimate example of the beauty and freedom of wild nature. In those days it was only normal for people to believe that a more natural life was possible, and that we were slowly but surely heading in that direction.

Here is a quick pencil sketch of an Iberian wolf: the ultimate simbol of the Spanish wilderness
lobo bosteza 1 baja

Now we are in the middle of a recession which is eroding away our brighter side. A few years ago we used to say that the crisis would bring out the best in us, that we would emerge more sober and wise. Now it seems that it has been the other way round, and we see ever more selfishness, aggression and spite everywhere. And politicians, always the opportunists, take every chance to offer new victims to the people’s hatred and frustration.
Now it seems it is the turn of the wolf to be sacrificed. Spain’s livestock owners are, like everyone else, seeing their life conditions worsening all the time, and the government is unable or unwilling to offer any real solution for their problems. But it can use a scapegoat, and it readily does so, offering to kill an unsustainble proportion of the already cornered Iberian wolf population. For a handful of votes, Spanish authorities are more than willing to renounce all pretense of a conservation policy, at the same time going against the spirit of all European environmental regulations.
We have learned the hard way not to expect much from our politicians. And if we still hope to leave a inhabitable world to our children’s children, it is up to the citizens to defend that hope.
Here is one opportunity for all of us as citizens to at least say no to mindless abuse and destruction. We can say no to the unjustifiable, government-sanctioned killing of 190 wolves in Northern Spain. I still believe it is possible for us to live with nature and not against it. In fact it is the only way, if we want a semblance of civilization to endure for more than a couple generations. Other things are harder: just SIGN!

Sketches and changing minds: the case of Batallones

Working with digital media makes it easier for an artist to go straight for final art withouth bothering too much with preliminary sketches. After all (and compared with, say, oil painting) it is now so much simpler to make things up as you go along… But nothing equals the flexibility of the good old pencil-and-paper when it comes to quickly visualize a complex scene and turn it around in our mind.
One nice example of this was the series of sketches I made for the Batallones Miocene scene that appears in page 53 of my book “Sabertooth”. Originally created for an exhibit at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid, the painting had to depict most of the relevant species of mammals found at the fossil site, and that is A LOT of creatures!
When you have to fit so many species in one single scene, it is almost impossible to include any violent action, but I could not resist to show the sabertooth Machairodus doing business!. So even in my earliest sketches I depicted a couple of the large sabertooths in the act of catching a rhino. One felid was on the hapless prey while the second one was approaching cautiously as the cats will do. Other rhinos were escaping towards the right margin of the frame.

Here is one of the earliest sketches. Second cat approaching, rhinos escaping to the right
version 1

The arrangement seemed to work, but in a later version I started to incorporate more of the species that I needed to include, and found a problem: having one cat approaching took too much space in the scene, so I had to find a way to concentrate all the action in a smaller space.

Here is another version, with more creatures in the frame, and the cats occupying more than their fair share of room!
version 2

It is not only a matter of the animals occupying too much room; it is also the fact that their activity reverberates and seems to ask for breathing room around them, a luxury I could not afford in this project! So I decided to show both cats engaged with the prey, one delivering the killing bite while the other added its weight to the fight.

Here is a sketch of the two cats on top of the hapless rhino
version 3

I will spare you the profusion of sketches that followed, suffice it to say that I decided to turn around the cats and rhinos scene so that they look away from us, which fits better with the direction the rest of the herd are escaping. By the way, I made the herd run to the left so that their action went into the frame rather than out, a device that keeps more “energy” within the composition.

Here is one much later version, where most of the elements are already in their definitive positions
version 4

Even with the flexibility of the digital media, there is no way I could have made all these changes as I worked on the final piece of art. But more importantly, changing elements around in an already ellaborated digital painting can be such a painful process that you often end up leaving things much as they were, just to spare yourself the agony of adding modifications. On the other hand, exploring different alternatives with lightning-quick pencil sketches is not only a much more practical way to shape your composition: it is so much more fun!

And here is the final version of the painting:
cerro-batallones-scene baja

Safari “hangover”: returning from an African Eden

We are back from another amazing edition of the “Drawing the Big Cats Safari” to Botswana. In fact we have been back for more than a week, and yet the process of adapting once more to everyday life feels a bit like a diver’s decompression.
The safari experience has something primeval about it, as if we were returning to the natural state of humankind in its childhood. For days on end our senses are continously soaked with the sights, sounds and smells of nature, and our brain is suddenly doing what it was designed to do -in fact it feels happy and at home, like a puppy allowed to run in the park, or like a dolphin splashing in the waves. Each night you collapse in your tent’s bed with your mind full of images to process, and yet utterly at peace.
Such a routine is in stark contrast with our daily life back in the “civilization”, and we have to come to terms with the implications, because a trip of this sort is much more than a vacation. We have fed our mind with the kind of high-quality food that will keep our creativity fuelled for months and years to come. But we know we are transiting between contrasting worlds. Each time I experience the pristine wilderness of Africa I am reminded that countries like Botswana are preserving such natural treasures at a cost. A lot of effort and sacrifice are neccesary if our shared heritage has to endure, and ecotourism is one way we can all contribute to make it sustainable in the long term. I never tire of repeating it, a safari to the African wilderness is an experience that will improve your life. Stop just dreaming about it and start planning for it. You will not repent -and you will return!

This majestic lion from Savuti pauses for a moment in front of the marsh. In the background are the hills where we first met this impressive individual a year ago. Not the only feline re-encounter we had!
botswana 2014 lion savuti marsh sitting

Heading for Botswana!

Today we leave for Botswana, where we will meet a fresh group of enthusiastic artists, plus the fabulous team at Elephant Trails Safaris, and hopefully…the big cats!

Looking at our pictures from last year’s trip, like this alert leopard from Chobe Natonal Park, we think we can´t beat those encounters…but, who knows?
leopard crawl chobe

We will be chronicling on this second edition of “Drawing the Big Cats” upon our return, so stay tuned!

“The Cradle of Human Kind” opens at the Museo de la Evolución Humana

After the great success of the exhibition “The Cradle of Human Kind” during the months it has been open at the Museo Arqueológico Regional, it is time for it to arrive at the “Museo de la Evolución Humana” in Burgos. Besides making it available for the general public (admission is free, by the way), this will also be an excellent opportunity for all attendants to the upcoming UISPP congress to see it!

despiece jirafa peninj-baja

For anyone interested in ordering copies of the companion books to this exhibition, remember that you can get them from the Wild World Visuals store, here:

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

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:

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:

Alan Turner in Madrid, summer of 2009


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