Monthly Archives: May 2014

Flying over the Miocene of Madrid -and then over Africa!

Ok, it is time for another trip back in time to the early 1990s, a time when Spain was organizing the Olympic games of Barcelona and the Universal Exposition of Seville and we tought we were a rich country…

Meanwhile, I was busy working in my largest commission (before or after) for the exhibit “Madrid Antes del Hombre”, including a collection of life-size sculptures of Tertiary mammals and a series of 5 big paintings.

One of these paintings should represent the environments of the Paracuellos fossil site in the Northeast of the Madrid province. After some rejected concepts we decided to go for an aerial view that would show more clearly the lay of the land in the late Aragonian (Middle Miocene). Back then, some 12 million years ago, the Madrid basin lacked any outlet and the waters coming from the mountain ranges around it simply accumulated in an enormous, shallow lake. During the summer rains, the arid mountainsides were intensely eroded and alluvial fans appeared at the foot of the hills.

My inspiration for this oil painting was a series of aerial photographs of the Okavango Delta published in a book called “Above Africa” (1989), by Herman Poitgeter and Clive Walker. Of course there are great differences between the Okavango and the Miocene Madrid basin, especially because the land in Northern Botswana is almost completely flat, but even so the combination of inland deltas and a generally arid environment was enough to set my imagination “to fly”.

I started with a series of detailed pencil sketches, such as the one you can see here…

boceto paracuellos baja

And then I set to work in the large canvas, about 180 cm in length…

Paracuellos-baja

After finishing that huge assignment I felt satisfied but quite spent, and decided to take the trip of a lifetime. So my wife and me visited Africa for the first time, and what a better place to do that than the Okavango? We took a scenic flight over the delta and it was impossible not to make the connection between the distant past I had been painting a few months before and the spectacle unfolding below.

Here is one of the slides I took during that memorable flight
OkavangoAir1-baja

It is easy, and probably wrong, to think of the distant past of life on Earth as an “Eden”. But one thing is certain, the land was wild and free. Places like the Okavango are still like that, and are our last links with the kind of natural world where our species evolved, where our senses got fine-tuned to the environment, and where our minds awoke -in brief, where we belong. Even a brief visit to a place like the Okavango reminds us of what it was like to be truly free. For me, that puts things in perspective in a way that nothing else can!

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Land of early cats: back to the middle Miocene of Madrid

The world is full of awesome fossil sites which open windows to a fantastic past, and each of them offers fascinating opportunities for making reconstructions. But there is something special about working on sites that are near your home and invite you to compare the familiar, present day environments, with the wild, mysterious past.

For me one such case was the opportunity to create reconstructions of fossil sites which were the subject of salvage paleontological excavations during public works in Madrid, where I live. In particular, the works in the subway station of Carpetana, within walking distance of my home, revealed a spectacular fauna of Middle Miocene age, including the remains of an early felid as well as those of giant bear-dogs, three-toed horses, hornless rhinos and giant tortoises.

Here is the Carpetana scene, with all its layers in place
Carpetana-scene

I created this illustration in digital format, and that was a fortunate thing because when I was well into the last stages of the painting, the designers of the exhibit came up with a change in the proportions of the final print, which had to become more “panoramic”. As a result, I had to “stretch” the whole scene, adding more landscape to the sides. This was a bit of a pain, but as a positive bonus it allowed more “breathing space” for the various animals, which in the original, more squarish composition were rather crowded. Having the whole thing done in separate layers really saved my day in that ocassion!

You can see the layer-by-layer structure of the painting in my latest video:

Bears and Sabertooths: opposites living side by side

I recently had the luck to watch the endangered spanish brown bear in the wild, and this experience has made me think a little about the evolution and adaptation of bears, and their coexistence with sabertooths.

Bears and sabertooth cats have been living side by side for many million years. A very early example is the amazing fossil site complex of Cerro Batallones in Madrid. Batallones is a hill where several fossil sites of similar age have been found, and each of these sites is what remains of a cavity which acted as a natural trap during the late Miocene, some 10 million years ago. At one of those sites, called Batallones 3, the remains of many sabertooth cats of 2 different species (Promegantereon ogygia and Machairodus aphanistus) have been found, together with those of several other carnivore species, including a large bear: Indarctos arctoides.

For some reason, the bear is completely absent in other sites such as Batallones 1. But in Batallones 3 it is pretty abundant, and it seems that, like the other carnivores at the site, it came here to scavenge on the remains of other victims of the trap. Meat is such a magnet for carnivores that it attracts species with very different diets, and not only the kind of animals that today we know as scavengers. Large hyenas with dentitions adapted to bone cracking, such as the ones living today in Africa and Asia, were absent in the Batallones faunas, and in fact none of the species that we find at the sites is nearly as specialized as modern hyenas for efficient scavenging.

But if we concentrate on the two kinds of predators mentioned in the title of this post, we find that while none of them is a specialized scavenger, their inferred diets were as different as can be for two carnivores.

The sabertooth cat was an extreme hypercarnivore: its carnassials (the pair of teeth that act as scissors and are used by carnivores for cutting meat) were enormous and extremely blade-like, and the rest of the cheek-teeth (or postcanine dentition) were either blade-like, or extremely reduced, or lost. This means that the dentition of the sabertooths served for little purpose other than processing the meat of large prey. Bone-cracking or crunching vegetable matter were nearly impossible.

Bears, on the other hand, are essentially omnivores with multi-purpose dentitions. They have a collection of wide, blunt premolars and molars which can grind plant material, crush bones or cut meat according to what is available. They are not extremely efficient in any of these actions but are reasonably good at all of them. Perhaps their greatest strenght would be vegetarianism, but they are mere amateurs compared to, say, ruminants. Indarctos, the bear found at Batallones, was more primitive than its modern relatives in several ways, but essentially it was already a very recognizable bear.

One important advantage of the bear dentition is its potential for adaptation to changing conditions. From something not very different from a modern brown bear (in terms of diet and habits), evolution produced the giant panda over the course of a few million years, as an adaptation to a diet mostly composed of bamboo. Even more surprising, a member of the brown bear lineage evolved, over the course of a few millennia, to give rise to the polar bear, an animal that feeds almost exclusively on meat. It is certain that, when faced to the kind of pressure that led those bear lineages to such radical dietary shifts, a large sabertooth cat would respond very differently. To put it simply: it would go extinct.

Here is a reconstruction of Indarctos, shown to the same scale as that of Machairodus, both based on fossils from Batallones

machairodus e indarctos

As two kinds of carnivores of broadly similar body size, Machairodus and Indarctos would not be especially happy to meet each other at Batallones. Getting together around carcasses, as they may have done on ocassion, would have been a tense situation. But for most of the time, their different diets and lifestyles allowed these animals to stay away from each other and avoid direct competition. Such was the case with later species of bears and sabertooths in the following millions of years, until one of the two lineages disappeared from the Earth at the end of the Pleistocene.

But let us now return to the present day, back in the Asturian mountains. Bear observation here is a real privilege, since only a few years ago these animals were on the very edge of extinction in Spain and you could hardly expect to see one in the wild, no matter how many hours you spent looking for it. But once you get to see them (usually quite far away and looking through a telescope), it may be a bit disappointing to see that all they do is graze on the fresh grass, almost like the chamois herds that share those mountains with them. But as we watched a young, yearling bear walk down a steep hill side, it casually approached a chamois herd. And the herd did not react as they would do at the approach of a fellow ruminant. They got pretty nervous and kept their distance, while trying not to lose sight of the bear. In sum, they reacted as they would do in front of a predator. The bear may spend most of its time grazing, but it does not deceive the true herbivores around it. They recongnize a potential predator when they see it, be it a sabertooth or a bear!

You can watch the video following this link:

And the Winner is… SABERTOOTH!

Yes, the book “Sabertooth” just won the GOLD as best book in the Science category in the prestigious “Independent Publisher Book Awards”!
INDEPENDENT PUBLISHER has been supporting original, adventurous books with its awards since 1996, and now it has been the turn for “Sabertooth”.

portada con premio

You can check their web site here:
http://www.independentpublisher.com/article.php?page=1791&urltitle=2014%20Independent%20Publisher%20Book%20Awards%20Results