Monthly Archives: January 2014
“Our Origins” is possibly the ultimate textbook on human evolution. I have been privileged to work with author Clark Spencer Larsen and W. Norton books preparing a collection of new illustrations for the 3d edition of this volume. The cover image shown here is a modified version of an existing illustration, and I am glad that a sabertooth cat (Dinofelis, concretely) has found its way here!.
Here is the book cover:
Among the collection of new illustrations which I prepared for this edition there is a night scene showing some early primates that lived during the Eocene in the tropical forest of what is today the Paris area in France. I am always happy to have the opportunity to explore these less well known areas of primate evolution, and aesthetically it is an interesting challenge to depict the world of darkness where so many of the most fascinating mammals are active.
Here is the night scene from the Paris Basin Eocene with the early primates Pseudoloris, Necrolemur and Microchoerus.
Driving through the African savannah in search of the leopard is an exercise in patience, and often ultimately frustrating. Small wonder it is so, because for this predator to survive, remaining unseen and unheard is of the essence. That is why every encounter with a leopard in the wild is so special.
There are many adaptations that help the leopard to achieve such discretion, and one of them is flexibility. The ranges of rotation of its joints, expecially those of the limb bones, allow it to achieve a remarkably low profile for an animal so big.
A comparison of the articular ends of the limb bones of sabertooths shows us that many of them were just as flexible as their modern relatives. For one of my reconstructions of the sabertooth Megantereon I played with the rotation ranges of the limb articulations in order to show the animal in a stalking pose.
First I examined photos of stalking felines and used the “bone point” method to determine the position and articulation angles of the bones inside the animal. Then I drew the skeleton of Megantereon in a comparable pose, and added the muscles and other soft tissue to complete the external outline of the animal. I have to admit that in order to make the animal more visible in the final rendering of the scene, I set it against a dark green background, which was almost a cruel thing to do since I somehow “blew its cover”… But in the real world, cats sometimes manage to crawl undetected towards its prey against pretty uncooperative backgrounds, sometimes in absolute lack of vegetational cover.
For that illustration I chose a moderate degree of flexion of the limb articulations, so that it was obvious enough that the animal was stalking while keeping its body proportions reasonably evident. But the flexibility of the cats allows them to take things to the extreme, as we were privileged to see in Botswana last september.
There, we encountered a female leopard that was alarmed by the presence of an approaching baboon troop. She took to the cover of some bushes, but on her way had to cross an expanse of flat ground devoid of any cover. And so we saw her crawling with her belly nearly touching the ground, and yet moving surprisingly fast. Funnily, I was instantly reminded of my own pet cat when she was alarmed by the ring of the doorbell and crawled under the bed for safety… A cat is a cat, always.
In wildlife documentaries, sequences of predation are usually edited so as to leave in only the most dramatic sections, in order to keep a fast pace and preventing us viewers from zapping away to a different TV channel. But predation is often a complex process, and there is a lot to learn about the behavior of both predator and prey from the other, less straightforward moments.
Last september we went in search of the bigt cats in the Okavango Delta (Botswana) but as a bonus we ended up spending a lot of quality time with the amazing african wild dogs (Lycaon pictus). One late afternoon we witnessed how a pack of African wild dogs chased a small group of lechwe antelopes. The speed and agility of both parties were of course a tremendous thing to behold, but other things were perhaps more surprising.
One might think that just the appearance of the wild dogs in the horizon would spread terror into the hearts of the antelopes, which would flee at the first glance of the carnivores. But in this case, predators and prey were well aware of each other for quite a while, and neither party would start to run immediately. A channel of the delta lay between the two groups, and each party seemed to be calculating the possibilities that the dogs could cross the water fast enough to catch an antelope. If the water is deep enough, then there is no point for either predators or prey to waste precious energy running.
The antelopes seemed to feel rather safe in their bank, but some of the dogs decided it was worth attempting a chase. I was familiar with the notion that there are different personalities within any group of social carnivores, so the fact that some dogs took the initiative while others followed more or less reluctantly was not all that surprising. More unexpected was the fact that not all the antelopes had the same idea regarding the need to escape. While 3 lechwes ran away, with the dogs in hot pursuit, one of them remained discretely behind among the tall reeds.
But the most surprising part came a while later, when the dogs finally gave up chasing the 3 runners and returned to the area where the fourth antelope had remained. The dogs gathered in front of the single antelope, and while some of them seemed almost impatient to cross the water, others looked much less convinced. It was the antelope who first started to run, but it was actually moving parallel to the water margin, using a pronk and a strange low-headed, display trot, as if trying to show the dogs that it was too fit to be worth pursuing. Then it noticed that the dogs were serious and it turned 90 degrees towards the water. But as soon as it reached an island it stopped to look back. Only when it saw the lead dog charging across the narrow channel did it decide to plunge into the next, deeper channel. And once it emerged on the other side, it resumed its pronking and display trotting.
This incident reminded me how complex and constant the communication can be between predator and prey. They observe each other, read the signs, and in many cases the decision of if and when to run is not nearly clear-cut. Seeing the “dance” that dogs and lechwes displayed that afternoon, one might feel that their interaction was almost a sport. And yet it could have turned into something much more bloody in the blink of an eye.
But perhaps the strangest thing was to watch the total indifference displayed by an openbill stork that was looking for its aquatic prey in the channel, so close to all the action that at times it seemed like the predators or the prey might run over it. Neither dogs nor antelope were interested in it, so why fly away? Energy is precious in nature. Waste is unthought of. That is an urgent lesson for us humans to learn.
You can watch the whole thing in video here:
I was happily surprised a few days ago when I received my blog’s yearly report from WordPress. As stated in that report: “The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 34,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.”
Well, I know that many blogs out there get more visits by orders of magnitude, but for a site like this one, which deals with a very specialized subject matter without any content compromises… well, I have to say it is beyond my expectations. So thank you everyone out there for following, and I will keep providing my pictures, impressions and reflections as steadily as time permits.
To celebrate this achievement, here is a small gift for readers of the blog: you can dwonload a wallpaper-sized JPG file of one of my classic paintings: a portrait of Megantereon resting on a rock.
I did this painting back in the mid 1990’s, and in its simplicity it remains one of my favorites to this day. So if you want to decorate your desktop with this image from my olden, oil on canvas days, just follow this link:
The link will only be active for a few days, so do click now!
Thanks again and I hope in 2014 we shatter by far the statisitcs of 2013!
Back in 2004 while on safari at the Masai Mara (Kenya) I had the privilege of watching a male lion galloping. It was not strictly hunting, rather it was chasing a few vultures that intended to eat from its kill. What impressed me most was not the sense of speed, but the sense of power, and especially of sheer weight. The animal was probably over 200 Kg., and its powerful muscles moved inside the animal’s skin with every bound.
Back home I could hardly wait for the film to get developed (yes, I made these pictures with my film camera) and when the slides came out it was like watching the animal again. I had captured all the phases of the gallop in film, and I realized one of the reasons why the animal looked so heavy while running: although the sequence of motions was undeniably a gallop, the animal hardly flexed or extended its back, and at some phases of the run there were 2, and even 3 feet touching the ground at the same time. Nothing to do with the light, almost airborne gallop of a cheetah at full speed…
Then I decided I needed to use the images as reference for a rendition of the most powerful of all sabertooths: Smilodon populator. The kind of gallop this huge male lion employed was probably the same kind a heavy Smilodon would use. For one thing, the short and relatively stiff lumbar region of the sabertooth back would not be too prone to dramatic flexion and extension, even at its swiftest gait.
I knew there would indeed be similarities between these two majestic, heavy cats, but I also knew there would be differences, because the body proportions of the sabertooth, as indicated by the skeleton, are different indeed. So the first thing I did was to examine the lion photographs and to identify the position of the skeletal elements inside the animal’s body, using the “bone points” method (outlined in an earlier post in this blog, “Big Cat Sketching for Paleoart”). Then I drew the skeleton of Smilodon with its bones articulated in approximately the same angles, corresponding to the same phase of the gallop. I say “approximately” because the lenghts of the skeletal parts in Smilodon were so different that I needed to change the angles of some articulations for the feet of the animal to just reach the ground.
Compared to the lion, Smilodon has very strong forelimbs, a longer neck, a relatively shorter back and shorter hind limbs (plus a stubby tail). All these differences readily show in my preliminary sketches. But even after this exercise in comparative anatomy and locomotion, whenever I imagine the great South American sabertooth charging through the Patagonian grasslands, I see something of the power of that Kenyan lion. Heavy as the cats are, no carrion bird should relax too much while strealing from the felids’ kills. Heavy cats on the run can be surprisingly fast!