Monthly Archives: January 2013

Sabertooth diaries 1: excavating old sketches

As the publication of my book  “Sabertooth” comes closer, I am trying to put some order in the mass of material I have been working with during the last few years. It is interesting to leaf through those fat folders full of sketches, some of them dating from MANY years ago: it refreshes my memory about some of the main subjects I have dealt with in the book, and in fact, it motivates me to tackle some of these subjects again, in anticipation for the next book (title to be disclosed at some point in the future…).

Here are some of those “paleo-sketches” (in the whole sense of the word!). They date from more than 15 years ago (Gosh!) and were  my early attempts to put together observations about key aspects of big cat anatomy, especially related to hunting:

Smilodon hunting sequence sketch 1 (150)

Sketch 1 (above) shows the sequence of events during a hypothetical hunt by the sabertooth Smilodon: the chase (top); the wrestling struggle (middle); and the killing bite (bottom).

Smilodon hunting sequence sketch 2 (150)


Sketch 2 shows the crucial point when the cat attempts to pull a large prey down to the ground, and it highlights some of the muscles relevant for that action.

cheetah-anatomy-sketch-1 (150)


Sketch 3 shows aspects of the anatomy of the cheetah, with special attention to the lumbar vertebrae.  For the fun of it, I also included a body size comparison betwen the modern cheetah and the extinct species Acinonyx pardinensis.  Back then I was already puzzled by the possible meaning of the changes in body proportions during the evolution of sabertooths, and in particular in the shortening of the lumbar vertebra in many species.

big cat skeleton proportions (150)

Sketch 4 compares the “primitive” skeletal porportions of the early cat Pseudaelurus (left) with those of the very different cheetah (Acinonyx) and sabertooth (Smilodon). Obviously, the skeletons and cats are not shown to scale.

(these drawings do not appear in the book or anywhere else  in this form, so this is a sort of exclusive…)

In the years after I did these sketches I have found many fascinating things about these aspects of felid anatomy, which I have tried to reflect in the new book  These days I am preparing a short video about some of these things, I expect to be posting it soon!

Amazing amateur videos of wild jaguars hunting

Have you ever wondered how did the sabertooth cats hunt? Here is a clue: with a lot of patience.  Many sabertooth cats were strong, short legged animals uncapable of long chases, so they would need to come VERY close to their intended prey and get to it in a few bounds.  Among extant cats, the jaguar (Panthera onca) is the species that more closely resembles some sabertooths in body proportions.  In terms of relative lenght and robusticity of the limb segments, the jaguar is almost identical to the sabertooth cat Megantereon, and to the early species of Smilodon, S. gracilis.

So, watching a jaguar hunt would be a useful observation in terms of making inferences about how Megantereon and its relatives could catch their prey.  But jaguars are shy animals and they have rarely been seen hunting in the wild.  But with more tourists traveling to wonderful wildlife reserves in South America we are beginning to see some amazing footage of never-before seen behaviour.  Here are a couple of links to amateur videos of jaguars hunting capibara, the largest living rodent.

The cats show the endless patience and careful stalk that sabertooths must have displayed as well, and the powerful low gallop that covers the distance between predator and prey in a blink of the eye.  Also impressive is the size of the capibara, a truly impressive creature…