Heavy cats on the run
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!