A time between two Worlds
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!