I remember well the first excavations at the fossil site of Batallones-1, over a quarter of a century ago. After some teeth of the saber-tooth cat Promegantereon appeared at the site it seemed likely that, for the first time ever, a complete skull of the mysterious animal could be found. Back then, that possibility excited me so much that one night I even dreamed that we had discovered such a fossil and that I held the skull admiringly in my hands, as we drove to take it to the Madrid museum…
Reality fulfilled my dream and surpassed it by far. Today, we have so many complete skulls of Promegantereon from Batallones that they won’t fit on a large laboratory table. The sample of fossils from this site complex not only has provided complete skeletons of species that previously were known only from a few scraps, but it has yielded the remains of several species completely new to science. Dozens of academic papers and several Phd dissertations derived from the study of the sites have largely rewritten the history of the evolution of carnivorans and saber-tooth cats in particular.
These days there is a large exhibition celebrating the scientific success of the Batallones excavations. Some of the most amazing fossils that you can imagine are shown together in the hall of the Museo Arqueológico Regional de Madrid, in Alcalá de Henares. I have had the privilege to create a large series of illustrations updating the way we see the animals and environments of Madrid province some 9 million years ago.
In a way, this exhibition is another dream come true. My favorite beasts, the saber-tooth cats, have achieved center stage together with an amazing array of fossil carnivorans and other vertebrates. I am thrilled to think that many children will be exposed to the wonders of paleontology, as I was almost half a century ago when my imagination was set aflame by seeing a reconstruction of saber-tooth cats in their world painted by master paleo-artist Rudolph Zallinger.
But fossils are only half the story here. The fascination of saber-tooths derives from their combination of the strange and the familiar. Monstrous as they may appear to some, they were, after all, big cats. So, it is the modern big cats that have, so to speak, provided the flesh with which I have dressed the dry skeletons of their extinct relatives. As a child I dreamed of studying the fossils of saber-tooths but also of watching the big cats in the wild and learning about them first-hand. Those are dreams that I have fulfilled, and I am happy that I had the choice to pursue them. The fossils were there in the museums and in the sediments, and the living predators were there out in the wild. I could have settled to just learning about them through the pages of books (and later, computer screens), but I had the chance to go out and experience the real thing. But now I am worried about the options available to the children that will visit this exhibition.
I don’t know what are the chances that children now in school will be eventually able to pursue a career in paleontology (in Spain the prospect is already grim today), but their chances of seeing large carnivores in the wild a few years from now are deteriorating fast. To think that the last generation to enjoy the privileges we had regarding the observation of wildlife may be already alive is a sad but possible perspective. To experience an environment where big predators still rule is to renew our connection with the kind of world we are evolutionarily “designed” to live in, and to lose that connection is to enter an era of madness, a time of vicarious fulfillment of frustrated needs. And yet now we face a new variety of cynicism among some scientists, who claim that there is no point in lamenting extinctions because they have been happening for many millions of years and people eventually get used to everything, so after a while lost species will no longer be missed. A philosophy that contemplates without a tremor to deprive the next generations of the experiences that have enriched our own lives is the most depressing consequence of a world view that sees human life as little more than a balance between ingestion and excretion. Such views reveal the impoverished sensibilities of those scientists -or their will to downplay losses as a way to skip the fight to prevent them.
Now as you look to the assembly of magnificent carnivorans from the Miocene of Batallones, just imagine your grandchildren facing a similar illustration, but showing the lion, leopard, wolf, lynx, polar bear… by then completely extinct in the wild. Imagine the desolation of knowing that there is nowhere in the world where lions or tigers reign as sabertooths reigned in the distant past. Today those places still exist but if one day they disappear it will be, at least in part, because of our own idleness. Just by having a clear opinion and making it heard, or through our vote, we can make a difference. But trying to convince ourselves that extinction doesn´t matter is perhaps the ultimate sign of cowardice, and thinking that future generations will not be aware enough of their loss to reproach us is the farthest thing from a consolation. We need the fossils in the museums and the living predators out in the wild. Each thing in its place!
One of the many illustrations I prepared for the new exhibition about the Batallones fossil site shows the large sabertooth cat Machairodus aphanistus hunting a three-toed horse of the genus Hipparion.
I needed to illustrate the key moment of the killing bite, and as a result the predator and prey duo make a dramatic but not especially dynamic ensemble, with the horse being pinned to the ground by the weight of the predator. I had previously rendered this action as a pencil drawing on a white background, but this time I wanted to place the animals in their habitat, showing the kind of environment that allowed the sabertooth to creep on its prey taking advantage of cover. But how to create a dynamic environmental composition when the center of attention is at the same time violent and static? Placing the kill in the center of the frame would neutralize the composition, creating a sort of implosion where everything else becomes superfluous.
My first decision was thus to move the cat and horse, and especially their heads which would attract all attention, away from the frame’s center. This decision at the same time made the composition more dynamic and threw it out of balance so I included a second cat in the scene to put something on the empty left side. In my hypothetical story, the hunting cat would be an adult female, while this second individual would be a grown cub, of the kind that sometimes assist and sometimes ruin their mother’s kills. Such a scenario is derived from the behavior of modern big cats and it allowed me to make the presence of a second large cat compatible with the likely solitary life of these sabertooths.
In this first raw sketch I quickly outlined the masses of the three animals, and used several trees to organize the rest of the space in the frame. Looking at the draft I felt that the second cat had perhaps too much importance in this composition, how to solve this problem?
In this second pencil drawing I attempted to leave the second cat in shadow in order to center the attention on the kill, but even with such a quick sketch I noticed that there was enough intensity on the predation without further highlighting it. The second cat should retain its share of the sunlight
In this third sketch I calculated the effects of perspective more carefully and found that I could place the second cat at a distance where it would look conveniently smaller than the hunting cat. With the animals approximately placed in the composition I began to work in the digital painting
As the painting began to take shape I found that the trees were shaping the composition a bit too strongly. Drawn with a few light pencil strokes, they seemed to arrange the space conveniently, but when those lines became solid branches they almost appeared to be enveloping the animals, like the sinister “Old Man Willow” capturing the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings… So I trimmed the lower branches leaving some breathing space for the animals and creating a corridor for our eyes to look into the mid-distance. Other changes included to block the view of the distant hilltop (which resonated too much with the shapes of the animals and seemed also to compete for attention) and to replace the tree trunk in the left side foreground with a more modest shrub.
In the finished painting I added a marten-like mustelid climbing on the tree trunk on the right, an element that further dilutes the tension. All in all I tried to compensate the violence of the kill with an apparently matter-of fact distribution of the elements in the composition so it would not look overly dramatic
The random patterns of light and shadow on the ground also intend to treat the story’s “stars” almost as just two more objects placed in the landscape, like something you could see while driving along in your safari vehicle. I don’t claim that this anti-dramatic treatment is the best solution for this painting, but it is what my instincts dictated as I went along. Following your instincts is in no way an infallible recipe for success, but as an artist it is still the best compass you have for finding your way through the conflicts of a complex work!
A couple of years ago I was approached by my friend Xiaoming Wang and his team of paleontologists with an exciting proposal: to create a reconstruction of a new bear species they were describing from the High Arctic Ellesmere Island. Ellesmere has a magical resonance for me as the legendary place where the biology of wolves was revealed as never before thanks to direct observations of wild packs that were undisturbed by human encroachment. But of course it is also a place of amazing fossil sites, including one called Beaver Pond Site which provides a wonderful window into the high Arctic ecosystems during the Pliocene.
The first step for my reconstruction was to draw the ancient bear’s skeleton using photographs and measurements of the fossils. Many bones were missing from the site and had to be drawn on the basis of those of living relatives, but still there was enough material to create a reliable approximation fo the animal’s body proportions. The resulting skeletal drawing shows an animal of moderate size, not very different in build and mass from an extant black bear.
A vital part of the reconstruction was to create an accurate rendition of the animal´s face, and for that we had the benefit of a remarkably well preserved partial cranium and mandible. In fact the team sent me a 3D scan of the skull which allowed me to visualize the fossil from any point of view, choosing the best angle to show the bear’s “personality” to advantage.
In this 4-step sketch you can see the process leading from the original render of the digital 3D scan of the skull, followed by the definition of the main muscle masses and the addition of cartilage, skin and fur to complete the outline of the living animal’s head.
The final stage of the reconstruction was to place the animal in a natural setting. The High Arctic Pliocene environment was reconstructed with the help of copious paleobotanical data provided by members of the team. In the background you can see a beaver hard at work in the maintenance of the pond that gives the fossil site its name, and which was an important factor in the local environment.
Nowadays there are no beaver ponds in Ellesmere but its hardy wildlife, including its amazing white wolves, is key for understanding and restoring wild ecosystems through the Holarctic, a kind of reconstruction that is very different from paleoart, and one that we should master if our species is to survive in the long term.
Check the original scientific publication here:
Mysteries still remain around the killing bite of the sabertooths, although it seems clear that they relied on a combination of a huge gape and a surgically precise cut through the softer parts of their prey (such as the throat) to achieve a rapid death through blood loss. Modern big cats on the other hand use a different technique, applying strong and prolonged pressure with their short and robust canines, either suffocating their prey or crushing vital parts.
Among the pantherine cats, it is difficult to imagine a killing bite more different from that of sabertooths than the one employed by jaguars in South America to hunt caimans. What sort of anatomical adaptations allow the jaguar to deliver a bite devastating enough to kill a creature that boasts one of the most formidable armours in nature? In a recent assignment from National Geographic Magazine we set to explore precisely that subject, and how to reflect it in images.
Research into the anatomy of the skull of pantherines by several specialists has shown that the skull of the jaguar is adapted for generating larger bite forces than other big cats, due to slightly increased jaw leverage and to the larger cross-sectional area of the masticatory mucles, especially the temporal and masseter. But the differences with other species of the genus Panthera are subtle and there is also a behavioural factor, a preference (either genetically programmed or learned, or both) by the jaguars to go for a skull bite where other big cats would aim at the prey’s neck. When the chosen prey is a large caiman, as often is the case among jaguars from Brazil’s Pantanal, the efficiency of the skull bite is simply astounding. As the jaguar usually surprises the caiman from above and behind, the skull or nape bite is simply the best way to bite and not be bitten by a prey that can revolve and snap its deadly jaws with lightning speed.
For the National Geographic illustration, art editor Mónica Serrano proposed to work in layers so that we would have freedom to decide what parts of the anatomy of both predator and prey to show.
After all, the killing bite is an interaction between the geometries of both animals and the jaguar needs to allign its head and jaws in a very concrete position in order to penetrate the caiman´s superb armour. This interaction is so compex that there is no hope to show all the relevant factors in one single, 2-dimensional image.
My first pencil sketch, based in a draft sent early on by Mónica, shows the jaguar´s head in near-frontal view, which is the only way for us to show the relevant features of the caiman’s head and neck in a recognisable way
By choosing a frontal view we lost the opportunity to show clearly one important aspect of the jaguar’s killing bite: gape!
Although the gape of modern cats is small compared to that of the sabertooths, they are still capable of opening their jaws to an impressive degree as shown in this picture. Such gapes are neccesary if the jaguar has to encompass the head of a large caiman between the tips of its canines. Photo courtesy of Luke Hunter/Panthera
Once we established the angle of view, I proceeded to draw the anatomy of both animals from the inside out. This is an excercise I am pretty familiar with from my reconstruction work, but in this case I have the advantage of working from images of dissections and CT scans of the real animals, rather than having to infer the development of muscles from their attachment areas in the bone only.
In the next layer I put the muscles in place. In jaguars, the great width of the area encompassed by the zygomatic arches, known as the temporal fossa, is a clear sign of the huge development of its temporalis muscle
At this point in the process there was still an important task ahead: to select what sections of the deeper layers to show through. That was up to Mónica and her team, who produced the published image as we see it here
Using transparency and additional outlining it was possible to show the position of the jaguar’s mastication muscles, the caiman´s neck vertebrae and even its tiny brain.
In this video you can see the whole sequence of images, from the early pencil sketches to the layers of the colour illustration, and you can appreciate the difficult choices about what to show and what to hide.
See the National Geographic article on jaguars as published in the December issue of the magazine in this link:
All artwork by Mauricio Antón, ©National Geographic
The complex shape of the ibex horns has evolved over millions of years for a very particular fighting style. You can study the morphology of the horn sheaths, horn cores and skull and see how the whole structure is reinforced to withstand the brutal blows, but to fully understand the relationship between form and function you need to see the real animals fighting each other. In one modality of their ritualized choreography, one of the contenders raises on his hind legs and gets ready to fall on the defender, who in turn adjusts his position to receive the attacker. As the impact becomes imminent, each animal orients its head quite precisely so that the forces will be properly channeled. In other occasions, both contenders raise and the trajectories towards impact are more symmetrical.
With extinct animals we can only infer their fighting styles from the morphology of their skulls and head appendages, but with living animals there is no end to how much we can learn by observing directly their real behavior. Such observations help us anchor more solidly our hypothesis about the habits of completely extinct beasts.
To see the whole process in action, check the second part of my Spanish ibex video here:
In my daily work I rarely keep art and science far apart. Science aims for total, detached objectivity, but I don´t think such a thing is possible for us humans, and certainly it is not something I can attain! Each observation of nature implies some emotional involvement, and for better or worse in all my productions those emotions end up coming to the surface in some way.
One aspect of this involvement is the music I compose for my videos. Reconstructing the anatomy of the sabertooths from the inside out is quite exciting, but the kind of emotion it stirrs in me is rather different from the one I experience when observing a violent clash between two imposing ibex males in the high mountians. As a result, videos showing such different contents require different, specific music, and I try to taylor make it or at least to choose from my existing compositions as wisely as I can.
In this clip from my video “Bringing the Sabertooths back to Life” you can listen to the more “electronic” sounds I used in many segments of that film, to convey a sense of how a careful technical study leads to exciting findings. In my wildlife videos I generally use more orchestral sounds to transmit the warm, direct emotions that you get when watching the dramas of animal life out in the wilderness:
Earlier this year I discovered Hans Zimmer’s masterclass on composing for film and decided to take it. Even from a quick look at the first lessons one feels exhilarated at the endless possibilities that music offers for enhancing and completing any film project. Mr. Zimmer is not only a genius, he efficiently and honestly transmits both the excitement and the tehcnical aspects of his craft.
As a first excercise while taking that course, I composed a piece of music for a short video about the behavior of the Spanish Ibex. Following Zimmer’s instructions, I started by composing a short, simple piano tune, as a core from which I would create all the variations that the story required. In that tune I tried to convey the basically sweet, harmless nature of the ibex, but it also contains a couple of chords with the potential of becoming more aggressive, as befits the powerful clashes of the males during the rut, or more mysterious, to reflect the vastness of what we don´t know abut the caprine mind.
In this other clip you can listen to some of the more “epic” sections of the soundtrack I composed for the ibex film:
Using brasses and timpani was a temptation I could not resist, but anyway I tried to dress the tune in warmer strings and even a playful harp to compensate for the in-your-face obviousness of the percussion. The big male ibex go at each other with devastating, almost murderous blows, yet the next moment they seem to behave as comrades, almost buddies. It is more complex than an all-out war, and so the music should also have something of that ambiguity.
Of course when you see Zimmer’s explanations it all appears so obvious, but for us mortals things are not nearly so simple! As I developed the themes my original piano piece seemed less and less adequate, and it constrained me unconfortably, but I decided to go ahead anyway. The result is far less elegant and effective than I dreamed when listening to the classes, but still a small step up the ladder from my previous compositions.
Learning from the best is deeply humbling but always exciting. Thanks to Mr. Zimmer and I promise to keep working hard as I progress through the course!
The fossil sites of Batallones provide amazing insights into the predator guild of the Vallesian epoch (Late Miocene, 9,5 Ma) of Spain, and are best known for the incredible collection of fossils of sabre-toothed felids, including the leopard-sized Promegantereon and the lion-sized Machairodus. A less known fact is that the other “half” of the felid family, the felines (or “conical-toothed cats”) were already present and represented by a respectable sample of fossils at the site.
Those early relatives of our modern lions and tigers posed no threat for the sabertooths, because they were all much smaller animals. Two species are known from the site, the lynx-sized Pristifelis attica and the wildcat-sized Leptofelis vallesiensis. Years ago, in our initial description of the animal we called it Styriofelis vallesiensis because its dentition was very similar to that of earlier, Middle Miocene felines classified in the genus Styriofelis. However, our recent analysis of the postcranial bones of the small feline from Batallones has revealed unexpected differences with those earlier animals.
The middle Miocene Styriofelis turnauensis combined peculiar dental traits (in particular the retention of milk premolars in adult life) with a skeleton adapted for climbing, with short, robust limb bones. Such a skeleton can be considered “primitive” for felids, because the ancestral members of the family were mostly arboreal creatures. The small cat from Batallones shared with Styriofelis the retained milk teeth, but its limb bones now reveal a surprisingly early adaptation for fast, efficient locomotion on land. This condition almost mirrored the one seen in modern animals like the wildcat, but it most likely evolved independently, because the particular dental features preclude Leptofelis from being an ancestor of the modern species. In fact, the skeleton of the Batallones small cat is in itself a mosaic of features, including the presence of a well-developed quadratus plantae muscle inserting on the ankle bone. This muscle has an important function in climbing and it shows that in spite of being a proficient runner, Leptofelis vallesiensis could climb better than most modern cats, both to escape bigger predators and to catch small prey in the high branches. Also the hind limb was especially long and the knee articulation resembled that of modern small carnivores that are excellent jumpers and climbers, such as the genet. It is possible that Leptofelis used its leaping ability to capture small prey such as rodents and birds while foraging on the ground, like modern servals or caracals do. This unique combination of features convinced us of the need to create a new genus for this cat, and we coined the word “Leptofelis”, meaning “swift cat”.
There are many things we have learned from this study. On one hand, the early diversity of felines is greater than was thought some years ago, when virtually all fossil felines from the late Miocene were classified in the extant genus Felis. On the other hand, we see that the adaptations of feline cats for running not only appeared more precociously than thought, but in fact evolved several times independently. Also important is the fact that the postcranial skeleton, often overlooked in systematic studies, can provide decisive evidence for the proper classification of an extinct animal. And, finally, if we look at the larger picture, it seems that the combination of the small size of the early felines, the need to escape from larger predators, and the presence of vegetational cover in their environments probably provided the right adaptive pressures which led (more than once) to the evolution of the versatile body plan that we see in modern cats.
Here is a reconstruction of Leptofelis in the flesh. The coat colour patter is unknown in this animal and here it is reconstructed on the basis of species such as the marbled cat, whose coat markings appear to represent the ancestral patter for all living felines.
You can check our original research paper in this link:
The Spanish ibex is a spectacular species of caprine endemic to the Iberian peninsula. Powerful and bulky like other ibex, the Spanish one has possibly the most beautiful, geometrically complex horns of any species. Like all ibex, this creature has been perfected by evolution for two functions: to negotiate the abrupt terrain of its mountainous habitat, and to establish the herd’s mating hierarchy through dramatic horn-clashing fights among the males.
Drawing the three-dimensionally complex horns of mature Spanish ibex is always a challenge but when you get it right you are on your way to capturing the knightly grandeur of these magnificent beasts. Still, nothing compares to witnessing the incredible tournaments that take place in the mountains of central Spain with the autumn cold. Just seeing these creatures moving nimbly up and down their rocky environment is amazing, but when the loud crash of horn hitting horn echoes in the high valleys you feel transported to the Pleistocene. Life still follows its age old laws up there and we are privileged to witness it.
I will soon be sharing with you a video showing some of the majesty of the Spanish ibex in action. Meanwhile here is a page filled with my quick, humble attempts to grasp the essence of the ibex.
When facing the challenge of creating a reconstruction of such a fantastic fauna as the ones found in the late Pleistocene of Argentina, the real difficulties are to decide what to leave out and, even more, how to arrange what you cannot leave out.
As it has happened so often in this kind of projects, the paleontologists I worked with insisted that I include at least the most iconic members of the fauna, and that included a lot of huge animals that you cannot easily accommodate under a log or in the shade of a bush. These creatures become relevant elements of the landscape on their own right so as an artist you have to brace yourself for a tightly packed composition.
The first thing I did was to try and visualize the general shape of the scene, using very fast, light pencil strokes to block the main objects. In this early version I still thought I would get away with excluding the largest Pampean animal of them all: Megatherium! But that was not to be
One advantage of the Pampean landscape in terms of this kind of compositions is its flat, featureless lay. Vast expanses of land with unobstructed views allow the hapless artist to place a lot of gigantic animals in the frame, but careful attention must be paid to perspective. So, even in this quick sketch I trace the perspective lines to get an approximate idea of the relative sizes of the various animals according to the distance from the viewer
Once the main composition is decided, I need to do a lot of sketches of the anatomy and action of the individual animals. The pair of Macrauchenias in the foreground were an important element of the composition from the very first version, so I needed to study their anatomy carefully
Although the sabertooths are dearest to my heart, I made up my mind to leave them in a discrete middle ground in this case, but even so they are prominent and I needed to do a lot of work on their postures
This painting was reproduced at mural size in a Museum exhibit here in Madrid so I needed to give it a lot of detail. In the end I suppose it took me about as long as it would have taken to do one of my large oil paintings but I enjoyed more freedom for changing my mind on smaller aspects of the work… and I got more back pain form hunching in front of the computer for so many hours. Sometimes I do miss the easel!
But the one thing that left me frustrated in this project was to double-check the plant list from the fossil sites and find out that I needed to leave the palm trees out. Damn, I love palm trees!
The process of reconstructing extinct animals is like a dissection in reverse, where one adds soft tissue layer by layer on top of the animal’s skeleton. But in order to be prepared to work in such a way, it is necessary to get familiar with the inverse process, that is, proper dissection of extant animals. I have taken part in many dissections of big cats in collaboration with the University of Valladolid and the Paleobiology department of the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales. Those dissections have allowed me to acquire first-hand knowledge of the feline anatomy, and to understand in more depth the differences between the various species of big cats.
One good example is the cheetah. We know this animal as “the feline greyhound”, and its lean appearance is obviously related to the considerable length of its limb bones relative to its body size, but is that all?
Well, the fact is that the cheetah’s muscles are arranged in a different manner than in other big cats. In the limbs, the bulk of the muscle mass is concentrated in the proximal segments (that is, those closest to the animal´s trunk), while the distal parts (those farthest from the trunk) hardly retain any muscle mass at all, and it is mostly tendons, not muscle fibers, that reach those segments.
Such a particular arrangement of the muscles is reflected in the shape and position of the muscle insertion areas in the animal´s bones, something that we can track as dissection proceeds deeper inside. Sketches and photographs record all the findings made during the process, and it is this kind of observations which in turn allow us to restore the lost musculature of extinct animals using bone morphology as a guide.
This series of sketches shows the process of dissecting the cheetah´s forelimb, starting with the intact limb (top) and ending with the bare bones (bottom). Of course this is just a selection from several sketches showing different stages of the dissection
Unfortunately dissection is a destructive process and once the tissues are removed from the specimen there is no putting them back in place. But fortunately we have the option of scanning the intact specimen before dissecting it, as we did with this cheetah. CT scan imagery allows us to check time and again the relationships between soft tissue and skeleton, looking at those structures from any angle and using perspectives we couldn’t check during dissection.
Observations like these pave the way for my work in the anatomical reconstruction of extinct carnivores, but it also gives me a renewed, deeper look at modern big cats. Whenever I see a wild cheetah moving around in its environment I perceive the lever system of its bones, muscles and tendons working right under the skin, and my admiration for these wonderful creatures grows even more.
You can learn much more about these processes of dissection and reconstruction in my film “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life”, available for download at Wild World Visuals online store: