Looking back at four years of our “Drawing the Big Cats” safari I am amazed at how much I have learned first-hand about the cats and their adaptations to their wild home -and I thought I knew something! That experience becomes a key ingredient to enrich my renderings of the felines, and my reconstructions of their fossil relatives and their lost world, not to mention the challenge to try and reflect those complexities with my limited abilities… But beyond those “practical” applications, I also get the impression that my life has grown in several dimensions: length, width, depth, height… and I suspect I am not alone in feeling that way!
Length, because each minute in the wilderness of Botswana seems to last so much more than it would do on an average day back at home. Our life lengthens each time we go there!
Width, because the endless horizons of the African savanna seem to create new room within the soul, to make our mind more spacious and free to roam wherever it will.
Depth, because the myriad sensations, both striking and subtle, that surround us while on safari, (especially when camping out in the bush), renew our senses and give us an intuition of a world where boredom is impossible and whose deep complexity we could not begin to comprehend in a lifetime.
And height, because there we are given a privilege of a true spiritual kind. Flying over the Okavango delta we know we are witnessing a miracle, not only because this giant oasis in the Kalahari sands is such an improbable phenomenon, but also because its preservation is a monument to the faith of many women and men who have fought hard to preserve this jewel for all of us. I get a renewed sense of awe both at wildlife and at that particular breed of people who can recognize what gives our life dignity, what makes us truly human, and are ready to devote themselves to protect it in a brave and selfless way.
After each trip we come back home with a treasure of memories, pictures, sketches… but perhaps the most important thing is less easy to define: we could call it a transformation. While out in the wild, we are reminded of (and submerged in) the things that matter in life: nature, art, good company. And we become more able to free ourselves from the many petty traps that ensnare us in everyday life. If I picture myself back in Savuti, looking up at the star-filled sky after the campfire is no more than cooling embers, then, strangely enough, everyday problems appear more manageable. Have you felt the same way? Well, no magic tricks here, just pure life force of a kind we can only get in the place that made us human: the African savanna, the Cradle of Human Kind. I cannot wait to go back!
A couple of years ago a TV producer asked me to create a few reconstructions of Homo floresiensis, popularly known as the “hobbit of Flores island” for a documentary film. They wanted the images to be grounded on scientific fact, but quite especially they wanted them to be dramatic and striking.
The first image depicts an imaginary conflict between a band of “hobbits” and several Komodo dragons. The producers asked me to show the very biggest dragons that could exist, in order to remark the contrast with the tiny, 3-feet tall hominins
Of course it is possible that such “climbing” adapations are just primitive features retained by H. floresiensis from its distant ancestors, but at any rate the right question to ask is probably why would they spend any substantial time up in the branches? Escaping a hungry giant varanid would be one occasional reason, but anatomically modern humans (giants to the hobbits’ eyes), which invaded the island at some point, could be another motivation to seek refuge up in the trees.
Although the elephant-like creatures were very small in comparison with their relatives from the continent, their hunters were similarly tiny, so this lilliputian confrontation implied a considerable risk of injury.
All in all, making this set of illustrations was a very interesting experience. When creating scenes from the distant past I tend to be rather conservative and choose the kind of interactions that are most likely to have taken place. But in this ocassion, the pressure from the client to create more dramatic, risky scenes took me to some exciting new grounds.
Today the cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus is the only cat with clear adaptations for extremely fast sprint running, but in the past there were other species, more or less closely related to it, which also developed that kind of specialisation. The American cats of the genus Miracinonyx (about which I wrote in some detail in an earlier post) lived during the Pleistocene and paralleled to a remarkable degree the cursorial features of the cheetah skeleton, although none of them was quite as specialised as the true cheetah. But in the Pliocene and Pleistocene of the Old World there was an early species of the true cheetah genus Acinonyx, what we could call a cheetah with a difference. Of course I am talking about Acinonyx pardinensis, the giant cheetah known from many fossil sites from Spain to China, and which is known to have been considerably taller than the modern species. It is tempting to imagine that, having comparable adaptations for running as the modern cheetah but with absolutely longer limbs, the giant cheetah could have reached higher peak speeds, but would it?
Many years ago I had the opportunity to study casts of a partial skeleton of A. pardinensis from Perrier (France) housed at the Paris Museum of Natural History, and I was impressed by the animal’s enormous size and advanced running adaptations. The animal probably weighted about 70 kg, but its limb bones were quite elongated and so were its lumbar vertebrae, betraying a long and flexible back just as in the modern cheetah. But a detailed examination reveals some features in which the giant cheetah appears to be intermediate between the advanced morphology of the modern cheetah and that of the more “normal”, slower cats. For instance, the femur is not as strongly bowed as in A. jubatus, and the fibula is relatively robust without signs of the incipient fusion with the tibia observed in living cheetahs. In the radius, the tuber for the biceps muscle occupies about 10% of the shaft length in A. pardinensis as in most felines, while in the modern cheetah it is only half that long (muscle force tends to concentrate in the proximal part of the limb in the cheetah, as in all cursorial mammals).
More recently, the bones of the forelimb of a giant cheetah were found at the Georgian site of Dmanisi, and their study has revealed some interesting facts. The authors estimate that the body mass of that individual would be in the vicinity of 100 kilos, quite larger than the individual from France that I examined and more than twice the average weight of extant cheetahs. The humerus bone is far more stout than in modern cheetahs, probably in relation with the animal’s great mass, but otherwise the proportions of the bones are remarkably elongate.
Here is a photo of the Dmanisi giant cheetah forelimb exhibited at the National Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi (by the way, the small round objects are not cheetah bones, they are actually hyena coprolites!)
Other fossil sites, including Saint Vallier in France and Pantalla in Italy, have yielded amazing fossil skulls of A. pardinensis, showing a considerable but not total similarity with modern cheetahs. The skull was proportionally somewhat longer and lower than in A. jubatus, thus resembling more “conventional” cats. But the dentition is very similar to that of the modern cheetah, especially in the fact that the upper carnassial was remarkably blade-like, lacking the inner cusp or protocone. This feature indicates that the animal consumed little if any bone, and, just like modern cheetahs, it would hurriedly eat the more meaty parts if its prey and leave the rest for more powerful competitors.
All in all , we get a complex picture of A. pardinensis. Undoubtedly it would be an extremely fast sprint runner, but its adaptations were a little less refined than in its modern relative, which, combined with a greater body mass, almost surely implied that it would not be a faster animal, in spite of its longer legs. Once A. pardinensis made a kill, its blade-like carnassials allowed it to cut and consume skin and meat very efficiently, but it would probably not stay at the kill site long enough to consume any significant proportion of bone. And it makes sense that, in a world populated by large jaguars, sabertooths like Homotherium, giant hyenas like Pachycrocuta and packs of wolves, the elegant giant cheetah would not risk injury in a fight over a carcass. Just as in the modern cheetah, there was a price to pay for extreme sprinting efficiency. And just like its modern relative, its hunting would have been a true spectacle of nature. Ah, to see such a scene!
Early this year we had the privilege of encountering this majestic Iberian lynx in the wilderness of southern Spain. A recent study reveals that the genetic diversity of this species is alarmingly low, something that makes each wonderful individual like this one even more valuable (you can check the study here: http://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13059-016-1090-1). It is almost a miracle that we still have the Iberian lynx with us, and it is such a shame that so many of them are killed by cars each year (see a recent news article about the latest lynx killed by a car: http://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13059-016-1090-1), not to mention those that fall victim to the ridiculous “predator controls” still practiced in many private hunting concessions in Spain. In spite of genetic problems and centuries of persecution, the Iberian lynx has shown it has what it takes to make a comeback: now it is time for the authorities to get serious about protecting each cat.
One thing you learn from trying to reconstruct fossil creatures is to value the everyday wonder of encountering living, breathing animals in their environment. Unlike the case of our reconstructions, there is so much in them that we didn’t put in there! Portraying the individual is something that is usually beyond the scope of paleontological illustration, because fossils only tell us so much about the variation and subtleties of physiognomy. If only by contrast, that makes it even more enjoyable to be able to portray living, unrepeatable creatures like this male Iberian lynx in his prime.
At this stage, I concentrate on the shading in order to create volume and depth, but I already block in some of the spot patterns of the face. The animal’s shadow on the ground contributes to create the feeling of perspective
I continue adding spots, but as I advance with this process some of the shadows I defined at the beginning are now looking almost too subtle by contrast with the more marked spots,so now I have to deepen them in order to keep the balance between light and dark
A couple of the earliest posts in this blog were devoted to the scanty record of cat fossil footprints, and in one of them I regretted the absence of any recognizable tracks of Smilodon. That was indeed an important hole in our knowledge because some specialists have long hypothesized that Smilodon would be a plantigrade cat. In fact, several kinds of sabertooh cats had features in their limb anatomy that were interpreted at some point as indicative of a plantigrade posture. Such features were present, for instance, in the skeleton of Homotherium, and back in the 1960s the famous paleontologist Bjorn Kurtén hypothesized that this animal walked on plantigrade hindlimbs. But, what does that really mean in terms of the locomotion an appearance of the living animal? Well, if Homotherium were plantigrade then its rump would be much lower, since the hindlimbs lost a whole segment (the metapodials) in height, and the part of the leg that rested on the ground would be proportionally much longer. The animal’s stride would become much shorter, and its gait, ungainly. One of the clearest ways to show the implications of that hypohesis is to create a detailed skeletal reconstruction of the animal in such a posture and compare it with the digitigrade alternative. I did such an experiment some time ago, and I found the results quite striking.
At any rate, other specialists such as R. Ballesio and L. Ginsburg made quite detailed analysis of the functional anatomy of the feet in sabertooths and convincingly argued that Homotherium, and in fact all members of the family Felidae, extinct or extant, were perfectly digitigrade, with the possible exception of the earliest species comprised in he genus Proailurus. My own research in collaboration with paleontologists like Angel Galobart, Alan Turner and Manuel Salesa, added further evidence to confirm the digitigrade stance of Homotherium.
But while there seems to be a growing consensus about the posture of Homotherium, some specialists still think that heavier, shorter-limbed sabertooths such as Smilodon or Xenosmilus would have been plantigrade, and one of their arguments is the sheer mass of these robust animals. Such views imply some degree of confusion between the normal standing or walking posture of an animal and its running abilities. It is an observed fact that many digitigrade carnivores, such as dogs, are fast, lightly built runners, while heavy, robust animals like bears are plantigrade. But this does not imply a real correspondence between build and posture, and one must rememeber that among extant cats the hyper-robust jaguar, for instance, is perfectly digitigrade, just like the agile cheetah is. Whatever the case, we still see skeletal reconstructions that show those extinct cats with a bear-like, plantigrade stance.
The details of the limb osteology of these animals fit better with a digitigrade posture, but finding the creatures’ fossilized footprints would go very far in proving their actual gait and posture. And finally, earlier this year, Argentinan scientists M. Magnussen and D. Boh reported the discovery of two sets of carnivore footprints in a Pleistocene site near the coastal city of Miramar that belong, with all likelihood, to Smilodon populator, the largest and heaviest species of the genus. The tracks are the right age, the right size and the right morphology to correspond to Smilodon, whose fossils miraculously happen to be present in the same locality. And there has never been a cat-like carnivore in South America that even approached the size of Smilodon, so the attribution of the footprints looks pretty safe.
What about the cat’s gait and posture? The footprints leave no doubt that the animal was digitigrade, just like the much smaller modern jaguar is. The footprints also confirm that the animal’s claws were retracted during the walk, although there is one interesting detail in one of the prints, that corresponds to a forepaw: a small mark on the inner side of the footprint would correspond to the position of the dewclaw, which doesn´t normally touch the ground in modern cats. But, given the remarkably short metapodials of Smilodon combined with the enormous size of its dew claw, it would make sense that it would touch the ground at least occasionally, as it seems to have done in this case. Also, the footprints’ enormous width corresponds well with the immense size of the paws of this predator, whose trail has been finally found, more than a century after its fossils were recognized by paleontologists as those of perhaps the most powerful cat ever to walk the Earth.
Out in the wild, the big cats spend most of their time just resting, and it is only on rare occasions that one gets a glimpse of their full potential for explosive action. And yet it is those brief moments that their whole structure is designed for. When I sit at my drawing table conceiving an action scene, as in the case of my illustration of two fighting Barbourofelis, I try to get all the details of the action right, and I use my memory and all the reference material available to represent the conflict taking place.
But last summer in Botswana we had a totally unexpected opportunity to see what a big cat fight really looks like. I referred to that episode in a previous post, but there is so much more about those amazing moments. One amazing aspect which unfortunately you cannot show in a painting is sound: the animals are impressively loud, and you don’t just hear the sound, it really gets to your guts. Another important factor is speed (it all happened in less than 5 seconds) but that is also impossible to show in a static image, even if it can be implied. There is a lot of other elements that can indeed be represented through drawing and painting, and they take a good deal of study to comprehend. It is a good thing that we can bring back our pictures and videos in order to elaborate an experience that struck us like lightning and will stay with us while we live.
Watch this video showing a few of the many highlights of our trip:
Jonathan Scott lives a life that most of us can only dream of, spending much of his time in one of the most amazing wildlife areas in the world, Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Naturalist, writer, artist, wildlife photographer and world-famous TV presenter, he has turned the dreams of his youth into a reality, and the story of his life, told in his autobiography “The Big Cat Man” (Bradt, 2016) makes for a truly absorbing read. I suppose many young wildlife enthusiasts will read it looking for an answer to the question “how did he achieve it?”, and certainly that, plus the thrill of following Scott’s adventures and encounters with wildlife are more than enough reasons to read it. Complete with a stunning collection of photographs and Scott’s beautiful line drawings, the book guarantees an engrossing experience.
But for those who have read his earlier books and followed his TV programs over the years, deeper expectations emerge. What perspective has Scott gained after witnessing the changes that have taken place in his beloved Africa since he arrived there? What kind of transformations has he himself undergone during a lifetime observing and learning from Nature at her rawest? Scott does address these matters, and the answers may not be simple but they are fulfilling. While the book is a true page-turner, there are major themes in it that you see better after finishing. One of them is how achieving one’s dreams not only implies a struggle against the obstacles of the world outside, but also a fight against the darker forces of our own minds -an insight you don´t often find in autobiographies. He also makes it clear how sharing his life with his beloved wife Angie helped him find and develop his true self. The general impression that transpires is that only deep commitment brings about fulfillment, something that Scott experienced early in his life, when he renounced the chance of an academic career in South Africa that conflicted with his abhorrence of the apartheid system. Then, as often happens in life, giving up something left an open door for something better to come.
“The Big Cat Man” is a story about Africa as much as it is about Scott’s life. As the narration progresses, you can feel how Africa lured this young British farm boy through the early documentaries he saw on TV, which built his romantic view of the adventure-filled savannahs. Then, during Scott’s first exploration of the continent, Africa showed him her teeth, but also enough of her charm to keep him firmly hooked. And with the years, he not only came to enjoy her gifts to the full, but he also became what Africa had needed of him all along: a champion, a tireless defender of her nature and a chronicler that told the amazing tales of the wild, and especially of the big cats, for millions of people to read and watch all around the world.
Like so many people, I first came to Kenya attracted largely by the stories Scott told in his books (“Kingdom of Lions”, “A Leopard’s Tale”) and films (especially “Big Cat Diary”), and I was not disappointed in the least, but also I have seen change over the years, and not always for the better. Scott is the best promoter of Kenya’s natural wonders, but he doesn’t turn a blind eye to the problems that beset them. In the last chapters of the book he addresses these problems and gives hints to their possible solutions, but always with a sober touch of realism. He has seen too much of what greed and corruption can do to wildlife to believe in easy ways out of Nature’s current predicaments, which are after all, our own.
The life of Jonathan Scott is largely about his experiences with Africa’s big cats, but there is only so much of them that can be told between two covers. So, for those who aren’t familiar with his previous books, “The Big Cat Man” is a good introduction which should be followed by reading such classics as “A Leopard’s Tale”. But there is one final consideration that comes to mind when talking about the autobiography of a person who remains active and in full shape: why write an autobiography at all? Why expose one’s intimacies to the world? Scott himself reflects about this in a delightful essay in his blog, which I recommend you to read:
( http://www.jonathanangelascott.com/main/wordpress/2016/08/other-peoples-lives-who-cares-why-write-an-autobiography/ ). Inspiring others comes up as one of the best motivations, and it is well summarized in a phrase that he quotes from Roderick High-Brown: “It is a rare book that changes a life, a poor one that adds nothing to it”. I am sure that time and the readers will put “The Big Cat Man” firmly in the first category.
One second the lioness seems to be sound asleep as the male delicately approaches her. The next second she is an exploding whirlwind of teeth and claws, and the thunder of her roar drowns any other sound from the surroundings, or from us.
We witnessed this burst of female fury in Northern Botswana during the last edition of our “Drawing the Big Cats” safari, and certainly none of us would like to have been in the place of the scolded young male lion. No real harm was done, but the lioness made a very clear statement.
How to capture the raw feline power of that scene with a simple pencil sketch? I try with a view of the angry face as the lioness snarls at the rearing-up male.
In this early stage I try to capture the general proportions of the cat’s head and the shape of the mouth opening with a few simple lines. It is crucial to get these lines right because I will be spending quite a few minutes with the details of the teeth and palate, and it is sooo frustrating to find out that the mouth was too narrow or the mandible was twisted after you had already wrought the details!
After some more minutes I have given shape to the main structures of the head and mouth, although It seems I will need to go against my own sketching rules and use the eraser after all: the tip of the nose looks to be projecting a bit too far forward!
Some more minutes into the work, and now I am ellaborating on the grayscale. Evolution has provided cats with a fantastic “natural makeup” to boost their emotional expressivity, and their faces are a study in tone contrast. Black lipstick, gothic style, stands in striking contrast against the pale fur of the muzzle, and one needs to be careful in order to show the difference between the dark tones of the lips and the darkness of the oral cavity.
In this provisionally finished stage I have insisted with the dark grey tones of the shadowy background. I remember the charging lioness as a fast moving tawny shape against the dark shade of a thick bush, with the fearsome canines flashing out. To capture this impression I need to spend some more minutes adding pencil strokes until I get a sort of dark mass from which the facial features stand out.
I never tire of quoting pioneer paleoartist Charles Knight when he said that you cannot pretend to be able to reconstruct an extinct animal unless you can properly depict its living relatives. As I further my work on the collection of extinct cat illustrations for my upcoming book project, I find it so useful to sketch time and again the big cats we have encountered in the wild. It is an exercise that never fails to enrich my perception of the animals and to deepen my admiration for them. Drawing is most fun when it implies learning, and sketching the wild cats of Africa teaches me something new everyday!
In a few days we will be heading for Botswana for one more edition of our “Drawing the Big Cats Safari”. Our main goal is to observe the felines, but that is only part of what we get: we actually get a ticket to ancient Africa. The big predators are one key piece in the giant puzzle of living ecosystems, and a place that still can sustain its large carnivores is a place where the laws of nature remain healthily at work, and for that reason I experience every safari as a kind of time-travel.
On each trip, as I board the safari vehicle for the first game-drive, I feel as if I enter a different dimension. Pristine landscapes, untouched vegetation and the diversity of wildlife bring my senses to a state of natural alertness -not in vain human kind evolved in the African savannah! One unforgettable first-day game drive took place in Samburu, Kenya, in 1999. We had spent most of the day driving from Nairobi, and we had only time for a short evening drive through the reserve on our way to the camp for the night. As we drove through the scenic riverine woods along the margins of the Ewaso Nyro river, we found another vehicle that had stopped on the margin of the dirt track: they were watching a female leopard that had just killed an impala ram. Althought the high branches of the palm trees were still golden with the last rays of the sun, the deep bush where the big cat stood with its prey was already in deep shadow. Everyone on board of the vehicles was silent, aware of facing a high natural drama. It was almost as if we didn´t have the right to spy on this decisive moment of life and death, as if both predator and prey were emitting a sort of primeval energy that gave us the goosebumps. We just couldn´t take our eyes from the golden spotted cat and the athletic shape and powerful horns of the fallen antelope. We remained there in awe for many minutes as the cat started to feed and its tiny cubs emerged from the bush, as did an adult-sized young from the previous year, but then we had to hurry for camp.
In later trips I have seen leopards with their prey on several occasions, and each time the prey was an impala. It seems the fates of these two species are tightly linked, but the fact is the impala is an older inhabitant of the African woods and savannahs than the leopard. In Kenya there were impalas (genus Aepyceros) rather similar to the modern ones as early as the late Miocene, some 6 million years ago, while the earliest fossils of leopard ancestors (genus Panthera) are known from fossil deposits of Pliocene age, some 5 million years ago, from the Himalayas. Some time afternwards, leopard-like cats entered Africa, where they are first recorded some 3.8 million years ago, but the ancestral impalas had not been free of predation in the meantime, because several species of sabertooth cats shared their African habitats since the Miocene.
The impala is so well adapted to the ecotone between grassland and woodland, that it has barely changed in 6 million years. Its acrobatic leaps are among the most sublime, if sometimes underrated, spectacles of Africa. We saw this impressive ram in Chobe, Botswana, in 2014
Becuase of my professional bias, during my African trips I can’t help imagining how would those same places look in the distant past, and what animals would occupy the ecological niches of the modern species. If we could travel back to the early Pleistocene, about 1,6 million years ago, we might come across a predation scene where an impala nearly identical to the modern ones would fall prey to a sabertooth cat of the genus Megantereon. About the same size as a leopard, Megantereon would behave similarly to the spotted pantherine in many ways: it would hunt its prey through careful stalking, approaching to within just a few meters before launching an explosive attack. If the kill took place in the grass, the cat would drag its prey as soon as possible to an area with good cover to hide it among the bushes. After all, big hyenas and lion-sized sabertooths (Homotherium) roamed the plains and were always eager to steal the smaller cat’s kills.
But the shape of Megantereon‘s teeth implied some behavioral differences: on one hand, the sabertooth cat would be less able to haul complete large carcasses up the trees, because of its relatively fragile canines. Lighter, partly consumed kills would be easier to handle, although the cat itself was a good climber and at least could always save its own life by climbing to the higher branches.
But the most important difference concerned the killing bite, which implied a lot more bloodshed than in the case of modern cats, and thus if we could see Megantereon within the few minutes after a kill, it would be a rather gory sight.
Here is a reconstruction of Megantereon whitei from the early Pleistocene of Africa, taking a breath as it drags its impala prey to the bush for quiet consumption. Part of my book project “Big Cats of Africa, Past and Present”
Today we still have impalas in Africa, but Megantereon is long gone, a proof of the vulnerability of extreme specialists like the sabertooths and the resilience of adaptable species like the impala -and the leopard. But that doesn’t mean I don´t miss the possibility of seeing such a magnificent beast as Megantereon was!
For a medium sized sabertooth like Megantereon, remaining unseen was of the essence. With its strong, muscular physique it was not nearly a long-distance runner, so it needed to stalk within a few meters of its prey in order to catch it after a couple of spectacular leaps. But its prey, including medium sized antelopes, pigs or even horses, had a lofty ally: the giraffe.
Since the late Miocene, members of the modern giraffe lineage evolved their long necks and tall forequarters, and inevitably became the sentinels of the savannah. From the privileged viewpoint of their 5 meter height, they miss little of what goes on around them
Some 7 million years ago during the Turolian (late Miocene) the giraffid Bohlinia attica had already developed the large size and unique body porportions of modern giraffes. It inhabited the open woodlands of Europe, giving them a striking “African” touch.
Any good wildlife tracker in Africa takes advantage of the presence of giraffes in order to locate the big cats. As soon as a predator moves in the vicinity, giraffes stop their browsing or casual walking, and stand motionless pointing with their stare in the direction of the carnivore. That habit is as convenient for the less tall herbivores as it must be annoying for the predators.
Back in the Pliocene and Pleistocene of Africa, the giraffid Giraffa jumae was a contemporary of the sabertooth Megantereon whitei. While the cat tried to take advantage of every element of the landscape to conceal itself, it could hardly escape the stare of the giraffe, which surely ruined many an attempted stalk!