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:
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!