One amazing feat that leopards do on a daily basis is to transform themselves into something more similar to a snake than a cat, then crawl away and disappear in the bush right in front of your eyes. That magic trick is something truly wonderful to behold, but really tricky to draw. The limbs of the leopard almost appear to have been reabsorbed into the body as it moves along with its belly touching the ground, and the pattern of spots makes it even harder to tell apart the different parts of the cat’s body, as the loose skin wraps around the whole thing.
In order to capture the essence of this action with our pencil and remain true to the animal´s anatomy and proportion, I find it useful to project a mental image of the cat´s skeleton inside the apparently chaotic external shape. The leopard may appear endlessly flexible, but each of its bones is a rigid unit, and they are there, inside the body, giving it shape.
We had the opportunity to see a female leopard doing that trick right in front of us a couple of years ago in Botswana during our “Drawing the Big Cats” safari, and that encounter allows me to analyze the anatomy and action of the cat with pencil and paper.
Once I have a clearer idea of the position and shape of the limbs flexing inside the wraps of skin, I proceed to draw the leopard without paying attention to the spots, just as if I were drawing a lioness or a puma.
When the cat is already taking shape in the paper I try to put in place some of the most distinctive spots, those that stand out and seem to create a pattern around which other spots arrange themselves.
I always find it fascinating to perceive the anatomical machinery at work under the wonderful skin of a big cat. Just like our tracker’s mission while on safari is to find a cat that is so damned good at not being seen, I feel that one of the missions of the artist is to rejoice in those structures that appearances would tend to hide from us.
I am looking forward to share more big cat encounters like this with fellow explorers next august, in the 2015 edition of “Drawing the Big Cats”. To have the privilege of learning first-hand from these magnificent animals in their habitat is a miracle to which I never really get used -and I can never have enough of it!
Paleontologists are thoroughly familiar with the shape and disposition of the teeth of the sabretooth Homotherium, and could never confuse them with those of a modern big cat. But when the animal was alive, soft tissue covered the maxilla and teeth, and obscured the differences. Obviously the proportions of the head, with a massive muzzle and a straight dorsal outline, were clearly different from those of a lion.
But if we could see Homotherium performing the “flehmen” gesture, then the depth of the differences with any modern big cat would become truly evident. During “flehmen”, cats pull back the lips in a grimace and elevate the snout, in order to allow odoriferous particles in the air to reach the vomeronasal organ, located back in the palate. They often do it in reaction to finding the odour of another cat, and they can judge, for instance, if a female is in oestrus.
But for the casual observer, the Flehmen response is a wonderful way to see the shape of the cat’s dentition, and in the case of Homotherium, it would reveal that the animal was “all incisors”. Effectively, while the incisors of a lion are relatively small and arranged in a neat row closely in front of the canines, those of Homotherium were disproportionately large and projecting in an arch. So spectacular were the incisors that the canines themselves would not impress us too much, especially compared to those of dirktooth cats like Smilodon.
In this reconstruction of Homotherium doing “Flehmen” you can see the large size of the incisors and how they porject far in front of the upper canines. In the lower jaw, the the incisors are so large that there is little difference with the lower canines.
Another advantage of the Flehmen response is that the animals keep it for several seconds while slowly moving the head sideways, thus allowing us to observe the teeth at leaisure. Artists often prefer to depict the animals in aggresive situations, where bared teeth are part of a violent encounter and where, in real life, we would only see a brief flash of the creature’s weaponry. But if I were one of the hominids that shared the environments of Pleistocene Europe with Homotherium, I would far prefer that the animal I met was doing flehmen rather than snarling in aggression. That way there would be greater chances that the impressive array of Homotherium‘s teeth wasn´t the last thing I saw in this world!
It has long been clear that Homotherium was the sabertooth genus that lasted longest in Europe, and the one that had most relevance for hominins living in that continent during the middle Pleistocene. Fossil finds from Atapuerca, for instance, showed its presence at a time when Homo heidelbergensis was well established in Spain. But the most dramatic evidence of coexistence between hominins and Homotherium arrived recently in the form of an amazing discovery at an already famous site: Schöningen.
The fossil site of Schöningen is known to archaeologists worldwide because of the miraculously preserved wooden spears found there in the late 1990s. The site yielded massive amounts of ungulate, and particularly horse remains, many of which showed clear signs of having been butchered by hominins, and the shape of the wooded spears, clearly designed to be thrown at a distance, gave clear indications as to how those horses would be hunted.
Last year, a new discovery was announced at Schöningen: several fossils of the sabretooth Homotherium had been found at the very same level (Schöningen 13 II-4) that had yielded the spears. The finds included several teeth of a young adult cat in pristine condition, and an impressive humerus bone.
Last week I had the privilege to attend a workshop that took place at the beautiful Paläon museum at Schöningen to discuss the relevance of the Homotherium finds and to place them in a truly multidisciplinary context. I was able to observe the new fossils first-hand, and the diversity of the talks and presentations at the meeting provided a kaleidoscopic perspective, and plentiful food for thought.
At 300,000 years old, these are the youngest Homotherium fossils to be found in a well-studied, stratified fossil site in Europe, and impressive as the findings are, the implications are simply phenomenal. Detailed studies will be published before too long that will change the way we see the interaction between humans and Homotherium.
At Schöningen, our extinct relatives had plenty of occasions to meet this imposing predator. Dangerous as those encounters could be, I would gladly trade myself for one of those hominins for a few days, for the chance of being face to face with Homotherium. But please, let me take with me one of those wonderful wooden spears. Just in case.
This might seem like a trivial question, but it is not. Just a few years ago, some scientists were so puzzled by the differences between the skulls of sabertooth cats and those of their modern relatives, that they questioned even their most elementary activities. Looking at the sabertooths’ enormous upper canines, some experts thought that such teeth would “get in the way” of any food items that the cat would attempt to bite, unlike in modern big cats which, they thought, can easily open their mouths wide enough to get a big clearance between canine tips for large meat pieces to pass. As a solution, they proposed that the external mouth opening of sabertooths would be much longer than in modern cats, reaching very far back and thus allowing the animal to acquire food through the side of its mouth. Incidentally, this hypothesis resulted in some really ugly reconstructions being produced. But, was such a solution really neccesary?
One thing that hypothesis made clear was the fact that its authors had never obseerved a modern big cat eating from a carcass. A domestic cat eating from its dish does get food into its mouth more or less frontally, but a lion eating from a carcass bites directly with the side of its mouth, cutting skin and flesh with its carnassials. Alternatively it may bite meat off the carcass with its incisors, but in either case, claearance of canine tips is not neccesary, and it does not indeed happen because the gapes used during feeding are usually so small that, even with the modern cat’s relatively short canines, there is little or no actual separation. And on top of that simple evidence there is another: in terms of food acquisition, it would be useless for the sabertooths to have longer mouth openings, because even if the lips receeded far behind their position in modern cats, then it would be the masseter muscle (whose position we know well thanks to the shape of the attachment areas on the skull and mandible) that would get in the way of the desired food item!
Conclusion: sabertooth cats could eat perfectly well from carcasses with a mouth opening essentially similar to that of modern cats. But I always prefer visual proof rather than, or on top of, theoretical one. So, in order to reconstruct the sabertooth Megantereon eating from its prey, I used my computer 3D model of the skull as a basis to trace the soft tissue of the cat as it applies its carnassial bite to its prey’s ribcage.
I used my own video footage of a wild lion eating a wildebeest in Masai Mara as a basis to establish the posture of the sabertooth relative to the carcass, and made sure that the morphology of the sabertooth skull was compatible with this activity, which it evidently was. Incidentally, the video shows that while the lion was eating, at no time was the gape of its jaws large enough to allow more than a few milimeters’ clearance between its canine tips. The old theory about sabertooth eating methods needs not disturb my sleep any more. I really like it when the pieces fit so nicely!
Here you can see the lion that inspired my reconstruction, at the moment when the gape of its jaws is greatest. Notice that there is only a few milimeters’ clearance between canine tips -not precisely leaving much room for food items to cross.
To learn much more about how the sabertooths’ anatomical “machinery” worked, read chapter 4 of my book “Sabertooth”.
And to see some revealing video footage of sabertooths and modern cats (including the lion that served as a basis for this reconstruction), get the complete video “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life!
Early January in the Sierra Morena mountains of Southern Spain. We have come seeking for the wildlife of this beautiful region, and most especially to search for the Iberian Lynx. And we get more than we dared to hope. To have this amazing feline in front of you, searching the bushes for suspected prey while its fur shines under the winter sun… it is one of those gifts of nature that leave you speechless. Rather than narrating this encounter in the video, I preferred to just combine the footage with a little piece for piano that I composed a few years ago. Intimate music for an intimate encounter.
I really hope that these incredible animals can come back from the brink of extinction. The Iberian lynx is still the most endangered feline in the World, and we just cannot risk losing it!
Many of the features that make a big cat species unique and unmistakable would be totally unknowable if we only had their fossils. Take for instance the lion´s mane or the tiger’s stripes. If only the other, more “conservative” pantherine species were around (leopard, jaguar, snow leopard), we would have no clue that their large cousins were striped or maned.
Such examples are a good reason for being humbly skeptic about our reconstructions, but at the same time they invite us to some playful speculation, as in the case of this scene showing a pair of rival males of the saberttooth Lokotunjailurus.
Lokotunjailurus was as tall as a lioness, but lighter and less strong. Yet, like most of its living relatives (members of the Feliformia from lion to aardwolf to civet), it would have its own ways to look bigger and more impressive when it needed to. The most widespread way to do so is the presence of erectile manes or crests along the dorsal parts of the neck, the back and even the tail. We all know how an alarmed house cat can puff its hair to look twice as big, and our instant reaction is to give the animal some room!
That is why I have speculated about the possible presence of a light colored mane in the males of Lokotunjailurus, somewhat similar to what we see in juvenile cheetahs. We have of course no evidence that it would be there, but on one hand it would make sense in an animal that was well armed but something of a lightweight, and on the other hand such erectile hairs are widely present in terrestrial carnivorans, and more especially in members of the feliformia, so that the speculation is not too far-fetched.
Unknowable as such attributes are, at least they allow us not to reconstruct all sabertooths alike in terms if their fur patterns!
For our australopithecine ancestors who lived in East Africa more than 3 million years ago, being on safari was the only way to be. I am convinced that so many generations, and such a cosmic amount of time spent by the hominid lineage as part of the African bush must have left a deep imprint in the hominid brain -including our own.
No matter if we live in Europe or New Zealand, when we allow ourselves the time and the silence to listen to our deepest self, we may well find that we miss Africa, even if we have never been there.
A shady gallery forest surrounding a cool stream, and giving way to sunny prairies and open woodlands, that is our original home; herds of elephants, three toed horses and antelopes, that is the “traffic” we were designed to mind; sabertooth cats with dappled coats concealed among the light and shade of the vegetation, that is the danger we are hard-wired to beware. Africa made us, and we are made for Africa.
I don´t know about you, but I can hardly wait to return there when I can!
A pair of Australopithecus afarensis out for a walk in their African home. Elephants, giraffids, rhinoceroses and antelopes were daily encounters while moving in and out of the woods in search of food
El sábado 14 de Marzo se cumplen 87 años del nacimiento de Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente, y 35 años de su muerte. Para mí, Félix es mucho más que un naturalista y divulgador, es una persona que cambió mi vida para mejor, abriendo mis ojos a realidades que han sido mi inspiración y mi fuerza desde que vi por primera vez el programa “Fauna” allá por los años 60. Hoy, el legado de Félix está en peligro de quedar neutralizado por sectores regresivos que buscan empobrecer nuestras vidas y embotar la sensibilidad de las nuevas generaciones.
La defensa de la naturaleza no es una “ideología” más de las que una persona puede adoptar. Es la ÚNICA opción sensata para poder legar un planeta habitable a las próximas generaciones. Si Félix y su mensaje significan algo para tí, te invito a unirte a nosotros el sábado 14 de marzo en Villardeciervos, Zamora, en plena tierra lobera. Ese día también se quieren subastar las vidas de varios lobos en un intento de perpetuar una explotación sórdida de esa joya de la fauna ibérica, una explotación que sólo beneficia a una minoría anacrónica y que impide que se establezca un modelo de convivencia con el lobo mucho más sostenible y beneficioso ¡Vamos a celebrar a Félix, al lobo ibérico y a la naturaleza!
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:
Have you taken a look at my Youtube channel recently? I have just decided to follow Youtube’s suggestion and create an introductory video for new viewers. Hopefully it will convince you to suscribe if you haven’t yet! Here is the link: