Lokotunjailurus was a large sabertooth cat that lived in the latest Miocene of Africa. It was a close relative of Machairodus and Homotherium, and just like them it had large and very flattened upper canine teeth with strongly serrated margins. Such weapons were there for a reason: they allowed this predator to kill with a very precise bite, known technically as the “canine shear-bite”, which caused massive blood loss and a quick death of the prey animals.
The kills of Lokotunjailurus could be called “clean” in the sense that they were fast and efficient, giving the prey little time for suffering (or for hurting the hunter). But we should not deceive ourselves about one thing: they would surely be rather bloody affairs, much more so than in the case of modern big cats, whose blunt canines are used for crushing and suffocating, but often don´t even pierce the flesh of their victims.
All living cats are fastidiously clean and spend inordinate amounts of time licking all traces of blood and dirt off their coat, and there is good reason to suspect that sabertooths would do the same thing. After all, it is an excellent way to keep away insects and infections. And, you know, cats are such clean-cut creatures, it is just in their nature!
Want to learn much more about the differences between the killing bite of sabertooths and that of modern big cats? Download the complete film “Bringing the Sabertooths back to Life” following this link:
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For more than a century paleontologists have been puzzling about the function of the sabertooths’ namesake upper canines, with new studies and analyses being published every year, and a sort of consensus is emerging about the way these extinct predators would use their impressive weaponry, as discussed elsewhere in this blog. But a few decades ago it was fashionable to say that such enormous canines could not be used for killing prey and were there only for display. According to that view, sabertooths would intimidate other predators with their showy fangs at kill sites and gain access to carrion, (their primary food source, according to such theories) as well as using them to resolve disputes with rival males for the access to females.
There are many reasons why this theory is wrong, as I discuss at lenght in my book, “Sabertooth”. But the important thing I would like to stress now is that, although the primary function of the “sabers” was related to hunting, it doesn´t mean they weren´t used in display. For instance, let us look at Megantereon. When the animal was relaxed, the tips of the upper canines would protrude beyond the upper lips, an impressive but not neccesarily scary sight.
But when several muscles of the face contracted, pulling back the lips and moving up the nerve pads of the whiskers, the resulting display of teeth would give pause to any rival. However, the facial language of the sabertooths, like that of any cat, would be more complex and subtle than just an option between baring the teeth or not. Felids share with us primates the privilege of having more facial muscles than any other mammal, and they can convey a wide range of emotions to a conspecific with their facial expressions. Baring the teeth more or less fully, opening or closing the eyes (and pupiles), turning the ears one way or the other, all these elements combine to send totally different messages. For instance, in the illustration shown here Megantereon is not really trying to intimidate anyone; instead, it has just caught the smell of another cat in the plants around it, and is performing the “Flehmen”, a non-aggressive gesture that is produced as the animal tries to smell particles in the air with the Jacobson’s organ, located in its palate.
Facial expression is completed with motion. It can be sometimes difficult to read the difference between a Flehmen gesture and an aggresive snarl in a still photograph, but in the live animal there would be no possible confussion. When doing “flehmen”, the cat moves its head slowly to the sides as it tries to capture the scents in the air, but I don’t need to remind any cat owner of what kind of motions and gestures accompany the baring of the teeth in an irritated feline!
But let us not deceive ourselves, even when the teeth are used “for show” in aggresive displays, the animal must be ready to turn threats into real aggression. And that was a definitive weakness of the “display only” theory of sabertooth canine function. If paleontologists rule out the use of the sabers in hunting because of their supposed fragility, then it makes little sense to hypothesize that they were used to scare rivals away, because no display of strength can be used indefinitely without an occasional demonstration. And biting your rivals during a fight is no less dangerous for fragile teeth than it is to bite your prey. In fact, during a dirty fight with a rival cat there is even less control and more chance for breakage.
Sabers were there for show, most certainly. But not merely!
The American Pleistocene genus Smilodon is probably the most famous sabertooth, and it certainly was the largest, and one of the most spectacular. It also was the last of its lineage, only becoming extinct after modern humans reached the Americas. But, was it the most extreme form of sabertooth ever to exist? Well, in terms of the anatomical adaptations for the sabertooth hunting and killing method, I think it wasn´t.
I would propose several candidates for the title of the most extreme sabertooth, including species of the genera Thylacosmilus (a metatherian), Eumilus (a nimravid) and Barbourofelis (a barbourofelid). Among these, Barbourofelis fricki, from the late Miocene of North America, combines large body size (although certainly smaller than Smilodon) with proportionally huge upper canines, together with a skull that has undergone a more radical transformation than that of any placental sabertooth, and body proportions that reflect enormous muscular power and the ability to wrestle down large prey and keep it completely immobilized while the predator executed its very specialized and precise killing bite.
Here you can see several preliminary sketches and the finished reconstruction of the head of Barbourolefis fricki. It took me several attempts to choose the angle of view and the lighting which best showed the unique porportions of this animal’s head
If you think that other sabertooths were more specialized you could be right at least in part, because the skull of Thylacosmilus, with its ever-growing sabers,was even more weird-looking, while Smilodon populator had the most massive sabres ever and would have taken the lergest prey of any sabertooth in the whole Cenozoic. But in terms of the total set of adaptations that it displayed, Barbourofelis fricki certainly pushed the envelope, and if we could see it in action we would witness the ultimate lesson in sabertooth hunting style. Frustratingly, we will have to rely on our studies of functional anatomy to have any idea of how these amazing predators dealt with their prey. But learning more and more about them is also a lot of fun!
If you want to know much more about these creatures, check my award-winning book “Sabertooth”!
Naturalists who study the Iberian lynx often call it simply “el gato” (“the cat”). At first it surprised me to hear it called that way, and it even sounded a bit like it took the mistery away from such an impressive creature. But as you spend more time observing the lynx behaving naturally in its habitat it strikes you how similar it is to your house cat in so many of its gestures and reactions.
In 2013 we observed this male lynx courting a beautiful female which was not yet ready for mating and made its rejection perfectly clear. After walking around her for a while he just sat and looked away with that expression all cat owners have seen, and which seems to say: “what should I do next? Most definitely, not hurry. It would be indignant for a cat to appear to be in a hurry!”
I tried to quickly capture the essence of that moment with my pencil. As always, I try to define the general shapes in 5 minutes or so. It is especially important to focus your attention on the general masses of the head, shoulders and legs rather than being distracted by coat patterns. The markings of the iberian lynx are so striking that it takes some concentration to perceive the animal´s real volumes underneath.
It takes time to get familiar with the shape of this very special cat. I will be exploring some less obvious aspects of its structure and natural history in upcoming posts. Stay tuned!
Most members of the extinct family Nimravidae were cat-like predators from lynx to leopard size, including the famous sabertoothed genera Eusmilus and Hoplophoneus. But in the European Oligocene some nimravid species (more closely related to Nimravus) evolved to fill the niche of the superpredator, reaching the size of a modern lion. One such monster was Dinailurictis, whose fossils have been found in the Spanish Oligocene site of Carrascosa. Most herbivores living in the Europan archipielago at that time were pretty smallish creatures, and you would expect that for much of the time Dinailurictis was actually catching prey smaller than itself.
With a body mass of around 130 kg, Dinailurictis was one of the largest nimravids ever to exist, but in Carrascosa the remains of an even larger relative have been found, and classified as Quercylurus. These animals would rival a male lion in mass, with a weight of about 200 kg! Quercylurus would thus be the king of Spanish Oligocene predators and the biggest nimravid ever, but its remains are quite fragmentary and the differences with Dinailurictis rather subtle, so more material would be most welcome to make a clearer case for the presence of two species of giant nimravid in Carrascosa.
Now here is a reconstruction of Dinailurictis based on the Carrascosa fossils and on remains of related animals. The predator has just caught a vaguely pig-like ungulate of the genus Methriotherium, while in the background two minute herbivores of the genus Cainotherium warily leave the area.
This is just a corner of a larger scene depicting the strange fauna of the Oligocene in the plains of Central Spain. More to come!
The Iberian lynx is a creature of superlatives. It is the largest cat species in Spain and arguably the most beautiful, and certainly the most endangered cat species in the world. Just a few years ago it was within an inch of extinction, and many of us feared there was no real hope for it. Now it is clearly making a comeback, but there is an urgent need of renewed efforts for its conservation. The rabbit populations in key lynx habitats are suffering from devastating diseases, and not enough is being done to restore them, leaving the cat struggling for food. Meanwhile, too many lynxes are being hit by cars in roads which should have long been adapted to the presence of the cat; and of the few individuals that have been released in selected places of their former distribution areas, too many are being killed by illegal “vermin” control activities. The lynx has shown it has the potential to regain its place in the Iberian wilderness, so it is our turn to show we can do our part of the deal.
Just like the African big cats (and after generations of not being shot on sight like vermin), the Iberian lynx shows a royal indifference to human observers. Such behaviour may allow excellent observation once you are lucky enough to come across the cat.
One such encounter earlier this year gave me an unprecedented look at this amazing predator. And perhaps the most incredible thing is the look in its eyes. I am always amazed at the look of lions, leopards and cheetahs, but the eyes of the lynx look almost too big, too intense. As the animal sits or walks in front of you, its gaze is almost always directed elsewhere, but if it crosses your own for a second, I promise it will give you the goosebumps! To capture its essence with your pencil is a very special challenge.
There is more to come about the Iberian lynx, an animal full of mystery and beauty!
Seeing small leopard or cheetah cubs at play reminds us of children in many ways, but adolescent cats may seem deceivingly mature… until their behaviour betrays their age. In the 2013 edition of “Drawing the Big Cats” we came across what seemed to be 4 adult cheetahs. Could this be a powerful coalition of males patrolling their patch of the Okavango? As a matter of fact, as soon as we came close enough to appreciate details, we noticed the longish hairs on the napes of three of the cheetahs, a clear sign of their immature status. And once you start looking at their demenour you soon notice subtle and not so subtle signs of youth. Mother cheetah, resting on a nearby shade, looked patiently at her children, which had full bellies that clearly called for a catnap. But even as they laid down to digest their recent meal, their eyes showed a longing for play. I was especially captivated by the playful attitude and mischievous look of one adolescent cat, which became the subject of this afternoon’s sketching session!
I especially enjoy the challenge of drawing three-quarter views of cats, which create a sense of depth and solidity. It is best to capture those three-dimensional shapes in the first couple of minutes, so that afterwards you need not worry about proportions…
It is a bit as if by sketching the cheetah all those months afterwards, I am responding to the invitation implicit in the look of its youthful eyes: “Let’s play!”
Today I went browsing our pictures and videos from the 2013 “Drawing the big Cats” trip, and was reminded of the amazing luck we had to meet two different leopard mothers with their offspring, which taught us so much about the family life of the most secretive of the African big cats.
Unlike the case of lionesses, which can share their motherly duties with other members of the pride, the females of the other big cat species have to deal with the unstoppable playfulness of their cubs without any assistance. As a result, there are many situations where the mother’s body language shows the whole range of emotions between enjoyment and impatience in a matter of seconds.
I decided to make a quick sketch to capture such a moment, when our Chobe mother leopard was trying to bring her cub to a stashed prey for breakfast. But the cub only wanted to play, and play more!
As always, the key to capturing the shapes in your sketch lies in the first minute and the first few pencil strokes. With scenes like this one, where two animals are interacting, it is even more important to get all the geometrical relationships between the objects right from the start. Otherwise things can get very complicated as you add detail
One of the most memorable moments in the latest “Drawing the Big Cats” safari was our encounter with a cheetah mother and her cubs. The little family was so relaxed in our presence that we even had the opportunity to sketch them live, as the mother rested on a shady termite mound and the cubs alternatively accompanied her or played vigorously in the surrounding grassland.
Today I have taken a look at some of the pics and videos we took during that encounter, and found one image especially attractive: the mother cheetah looking out from the top of a termite mound that looked a bit like a castle, with several pinnacles resembling battlements.
I decided to make a quick drawing to recover the essence of that moment.
Once again, I draw the essential lines as fast as possible, not dwelling on too many details. At this stage I discover a nice but totally fortuitous example of “resonance”, as the shape of a pinnacle on the left part of the mound echoes that of the cheetahs flexed hind leg… The playful artist in me loves this sort of little things!
I have to confess to having taken a small artistic license in this rendering: I omitted the largish radio collar which scientists put on this beautiful cat. Obviously every bit of information biologists can get from these wild animals can be vital for their conservation, but a collar like that is nonetheless something of a blemish on the perfection of such an elegant cat!
Want to see some footage of our encounter with this charming cheeath family? Check this link to watch the video in YouTube: