Anatomical “X-Ray” vision in the savannah: unveiling the big cat bite
The great Charles R. Knight once said that an artist who is unable to draw the modern animals properly cannot expect to depict the fossil ones. And indeed the living animals are the key to understand the extinct species in many ways -literally, more ways than meet the eye.
Watching the big cats in the wild is an experience to change your life, but if you go to the savannah armed with some knowledge of the felines’ anatomy and inner structure, that experience suddenly becomes so much more than skin deep.
In 2011 we came across this beautiful female leopard who was applying her killing bite to a huge impala ram in Samburu reserve, Kenya. But, what was happening beneath the surface of the animals’ skins? What complex machinery was at work to make this duel even possible? and, even more in the line of this blog, what does it all tell us about how the sabertooths would have dealt with their own prey?
The many dissections and even CT scans of intact big cats which we had done back in Spain gave me a fair idea of the position and shape of bone and muscle structures that supported the external shapes visible to us. The huge cross-section of the temporalis and masseter muscles, which give the leopard’s head so much of its shape, are not only related to the strenght of this deadly bite, but with its duration. That was in fact one of the most striking aspects of that dramatic episode: the many minutes that the cat spent, motionless as a statue, not releasing for a second the iron grip on the impala’s muzzle. And that is a feat that the sabertooths, with all their impressive weaponry, could not equal.
Here is one of our CT scans of a leopard head, showing simultaneously the bone and the outline of the soft tissue. Such imagery is useful both for understanding what goes on inside living animals, and to reconstruct the fossil species
Back home in Madrid, I set to work with 3D animator Juan Pérez-Fajardo to recreate the leopard’s “kiss of death” in 3D in order to reveal the inner workings of the animals’ functional anatomy, and then to compare it with the same structures in the sabertooths.
This other frame from the film shows the masses of the masticatory muscles on top of the bones, helping to explain how the anatomy of the felines allows them to perform their specific type of killing bite.
Afterwards we created animations that compare the structure of the leopard with that of the sabertooths and show how the latter would have dealt with their own prey.
But, just as an image is worth a thousand words, a film can efficiently show things that it would take many pages of text to explain. So, I suggest that you go and download the film “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life”. It is all there.
Just follow this link for the original version:
Or follow this other one for the version with Spanish subtitles: