Monthly Archives: April 2013
How would you like to join me in a safari to the Okavango delta in search of the big cats? A few months from now I will be returning to Botswana (after all those years) and I would love to recruit a group of artists and big cat lovers in general who want to take part in a unique experience (painters, illustrators, animators… or anyone wishing to take a deeper-than-skin look at the most wonderful predators on Earth). I will try to share with you what I have learned over these 20 years about the anatomy, action, behavior and evolution of the big cats. And of course I look forward to learning from YOUR experience and background. The safari is organized by my friends from “The Elephant Trails”, a company based in Maun, Botswana, with a long experience setting the highest standards for photographic safaris. I will be announcing details soon, but in the meantime, think about packing your sketch pad and cameras, and get ready to come face to face with the big cats!
The safari departs in september 2013. You can download a PDF with information about the trip in the following link:
One of the most fascinating aspects of studying the faunas of the Pliocene and Pleistocene of Africa is the intriguing mixture of modern species with others that have vanished forever. In many of the cave sites from the Sterkfontein Valley (South Africa’s “Cradle of Humankind”) we find fossils of several kinds of sabertooth cats (Dinofelis, Homotherium and Megantereon) together with those of various modern antelopes. In fact the ungulate fauna was of a rather modern type, and it is pretty obvious that the sabertooths, like any other big mammalian predators, would have to pick their prey from among the most abundant herbivores in the area.
As a jaguar-sized felid well adapted to life in wooded areas, Megantereon would have ample opportunity to ambush antelope as they crossed gallery forests on their way to drink in South African rivers. The scene depicted in my illustration, with a hapless bushbuck (Tragelaphus) caught under the powerful paws of Megantereon, is based on the fossil sample from the site of Kromdraai (one of the many Sterkfontein Valley cavities), where both animals are recorded. Is is just one example of the many interactions between extinct species and more familiar ones that would have occurred in those wonderful times.
With evidence like this in mind, I can’t help thinking that if Megantereon were alive today in places like Kruger Park in South Africa, it would find a prey base not terribly different from the one that was available back in the early Pleistocene. Certainly not so different that the predator would not find some suitable animals to hunt… Extinction often seems to be a matter of too many things going wrong at the same time – a sort of biological “Murphy’s Law”- and once the crisis is past, the world goes back to business as before -only several species short. How I wish I could look through a “time window” into that amazing time before the extinction of the sabertooths!
These days we are hearing a lot about “de-extinction”, that is, the scientific process of bringing extinct species back via cloning their DNA. Sabertooths are among the species mentioned, because the last sabertooth species to disappear did it as recently as 10,000 years ago and their fossils do preserve some DNA. Does that mean we are going to see a real living sabertooth anytime soon? I very much doubt it, and given the details of the methodology, even if we ever see a “resurrected” sabertooth there will always be a lot of doubts about how much it resembles the REAL thing.
I find these possibilities really intriguing, but I do not for a moment think that they turn extinction into a reversible process, and while I am not “offended” by the concept of “playing God” my impression is that we should not overestimate our actual potential for “bringing back the dead”.
My humble job is to research the anatomy of fossil animals and their living relatives in order to create reasonable approximations of the appearance and action of bygone species. But whenever I see a living big cat in the wild I get a very strong reminder of how much more than just osteology is needed to make a living animal. One cannot overstate how final extinction is. If we lose the wild lions and tigers we will never fully know what it is that we lost, because even if we reintroduce captive born specimens to the wild in some future time, there are subtleties in the interaction of a species with its environment that will be lost forever. But if all that is left of a species is the more or less incomplete DNA of a dead individual… well, the prospect is not especially bright.
As exciting as the possibility of seeing “what happens” after such experiments may be, I have two things clear in my mind: one of them is that whatever comes out of the laboratory, it will only share a small fraction of its essence with the real thing that was lost; and the second thing (CAUTION, here I indulge in some poetry) is that if I were a sabertooth cat (meaning a sentient individual of one of the most sophisticated species ever to evolve) I would like to see the light of day in the wilds of the Pleistocene, to face my fate as a predator and to raise a new generation of my kind, but I would not at all love to be born as a result of an awkward experiment by some overfunded scientists with a misguided sense of curiosity. It is easy to forget that each animal (including ourselves) has only one life to live, and from that point of view, de-extinction for me has something in common with some of the worse aspects of animal experimentation.
Let us do what we can to prevent the extinction of living species, and about those that are gone, I am content to study what remains of them. I am happy that pencils and graphic tablets remain my harmless tools for “resurrection”.
Thanks for reading!