Monthly Archives: June 2014

Big Cat Warriors: Introducing the lions of Savuti

I have been fascinated by Savuti and its lions ever since I first watched that masterly film by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, “Eternal Enemies”. Since then I have been privileged to visit Savuti 3 times, and in each occasion that beautiful, haunting place has shown me a totally different face.

The Savuti “Marsh” is the relic of a large inland lake, which dried long ago, and is now fed by the erratic Savuti channel. It occupies a large area in the west of the Chobe National Park, Botswana. Our first visit was in 1993, when the Savuti channel had been dry for several years. We were in the middle of the dry season and the place looked like the ideal location for a crepuscular Western film. In the bone-dry plain that once was a marsh, we came across the legendary Maome pride, which showed us its most powerful side -that of the giant killers. They had hunted a huge male giraffe and were taking turns to get inside the prey’s ribcage to eat their fill. Then they would come out and walk towards the shade of a nearby acacia, passing just a few meters from us. One of them actually was too full to continue and lay down to rest in the shadow of our vehicle! That was what I call an introduction to Savuti, to wild lions and to wild Africa!

Here is one of the Savuti lionesses at the giraffe kill in Ausgust 1993. A spotted hyaena looks from a safe distance
savuti leona jirafa hiena

When one of the lionesses leaves the kill and passes a few meters from us, we observe the wounds in her hind leg, probably inflicted during the hunt
leona con herida camina

In 1995 we returned to Savuti. It was the end of the rainy season, and the marsh, alhough waterless, was much greener than the previous time. And the lions showed us a different facet too: their family life. Lionesses and cubs relaxed and played among the greenery, in a scene that was as idillic as the previous time had been stark.

A bunch of playful lion cubs of different ages frolic in the green Savuti in april 1995

A fallen tree becomes part of their playground

But we were as yet to meet the legendary male lions of Savuti. These warriors of the feline world spend most of their time on patrol, and checking nearby prides, moving through an enormous extension of land and occasionally leaving the protected areas -only to be shot by reckless human hunters. At least that was the case until Botswana finally took the bold step of banning trophy hunting altogether.

Then last year we finally returned to Savuti, to find the place totally unrecognizable. Subtle tectonic movements had caused the Savuti channel to flow once more, and the marsh was again true to its name, teeming with water birds and attracting herbivores from miles around in the middle of the dry season. And then, at long last, we came across the feline lords of Savuti. A wild animal does not exist in isolation, and it is impossible to separate the Savuti cats from the stark beauty of the place where they live. These lion prides have survived here through the harshest environmental changes, and now they are adapting to a wet Savuti Marsh once again. We humans go there when we can to marvel at their power, but the lions are tightly tied to that merciless patch of land.
I can hardly wait to get back to Savuti and see those incredible felines again!

An image of raw feline power
savuti male lion 1

Seeing these majestic males patrolling the Gubatsa hills with a castle-like baobab in the background was an epic image, like something out of Middle-Earth…
savuti lions and baobab

Want to see the Savuti male lions in all their glory? Follow this link and watch a clip from my upcoming film about the big cats of Botswana:

Smilodon chase, or changing our minds while we sketch.

The chase scene with Smilodon and Macrauchenia which appears at the top of this blog’s home page was first conceived as an African scene with the sabertooth Lokotunjailurus in pursuit of some Hipparion horses. Years later I needed to do an illustration of a South American Smilodon hunting (for the “National Geographic book of Prehistoric Mammals”), and I picked up one of the many preliminary sketches I had done for that old scene, and simply replaced Lokotunjailurus for Smilodon and Hipparion for Equus (Amerhippus).

Here is one early sketch for the South American scene, with Smilodon and Equus
Sin título-1

Then I realized that the 2 species shown were North American invaders, would it not be better to include a native South American ungulate in the scene? So I drew Macrauchenia as the target, instead of the horse.

In this next version, Macrauchenia is the sabertooths’ intended victim
Sin título-2

This illustration was intended to fill a double page spread in the book, so the next thing I did was to add more elements in order to fill a horizontal format.

In this third version, a mixed herd of Macrauchenia and horses flees from the surprise attack of the sabertooths
Sin título-3

But at one point I realized that in this composition the book’s gutter would cut the adult Macrauchenia in half, and also the animals would look a bit small in the scene. So I deleted the horses, replaced the right-hand horse for a Macrauchenia, zoomed-in on the scene to bring the animals closer, and shifted the center of the scene slightly to the left so that the gutter spared the main Macrauchenia.

Here is the next version, a zoomed-in composition, minus the horses

Sin título-4

What I did not anticipate was the designer’s decision to include a black band with vertical text on the right-hand margin of the spread. This pushed the whole scene to the left and now it was one of the leaping sabertooths which was nearly severed by the gutter! Back then I was still painting in oils so I could not change the scene. If I had painted it digitally by layers it would have been a relatively simple matter of pushing elements to one or the other side…

And here is the finished illustration!

This, by the way, was one of my last oil paintings. Creating so many complex scenes for this book, and doing it all in record time, left me utterly exhausted, and I felt it might be the right time to explore the possibilities of the digital media. And so it was!

Composing with giants -and using predators as sideshows!

In the previous post we looked at the use of perspective for establishing the relative sizes of animals in a scene. One thing that I have found time and again is that my brain keeps deceiving me into representing the world as a rather flat scenery, and at the same time to minimize the size differences between animals.

Several years ago I started making sketches for a scene showing Paraceratherium, the rhinoceros-like giant indricothere of the Eurasian Oligocene. In order to make its huge size more apparent, I decided to put a couple of wolf-sized predators of the genus Hyaenodon in the foreground. I first attempted to sketch this scene purely from my imagination and without any perspective lines. It was a horizontal composition with the horizon positioned low in the frame, which emphasized the large size of the indricotheres -or so I thought.

Here is my preliminary sketch for the scene, withouth any perspective lines

I went on to the next stage of the process, drawing perspective lines and incorporating the measurements of the animals. And, oh surprise, the indricotheres looked so much bigger now!

And here is the next version, with perspective lines in place and the sizes of the animals corrected accordingly

In my third version I re-arranged the positions of the animals in the frame, especially the closest indricothere whose head was shown more laterally in order to make its proportions more evident. (I must confess that seeing the sketches all these years later, I find the previous version more interesting!)

Here is the third version, which served as the basis for my drawing as published in the book “Mammoths, Sabertooths and Hominids”

And the final, published version:
Benara baja

A few years later I revisited the Paraceratherium theme, and my premininary sketch was built a bit like the previous scene, with a low horizon and the animals set largely against the sky. But I did not intend to include the hyaenodontids this time.

Here is the approved sketch for my more recent Paraceratherium scene

But as I progressed with the illustration, I found that I was missing a reference to really put the size of the beasts in perspective. I had to admit I was not ready to leave out my favorite sideshows from the Oligocene. So welcome back Hyaenodon! No indricothere scene is the same without them!

And here is the final scene, with sideshow-Hyaenodon included!
escena-indricoterios-2013 baja watermark

How big was a marsupial sabertooth? Establishing relative size in a scene

As some of you have already noticed, many of my sketches are crossed by a multitude of lines, whose purpose may not be clear at first sight. Well, all of them have a purpose, although not all have the same one. Some sets of lines are there to serve as a sort of grid, to make the composition more easily replicable. Others are there to show me more clearly the proportions of the working rectangle while I build the composition, so I can check if the elements are balanced. Finally, some lines are there to establish a persepctive in order to control the relative size of animals and objects in the scene. For this purpose I normally create a one-point perspective with its vanishing point in the horizon.
Such a simple procedure gives me a pleasant sense of relief regarding doubts about how big or how small one animal species would look beside another, and some times the results are surprising, even though I have the measurements and know the dimensions of the animals beforehand.
One example is the preliminary sketch I did for a scene showing a pair of marsupial sabertooths of the genus Thylacosmilus, together with some glyptodons and ground sloths. In my very first sketches I tended to show the distant sloths and glyptodons as rather larger animals, but when I put my perspective lines in place I found that these animals would have to look rather less impressive. After all, these Pliocene edentates were way smaller than their later, gigantic relatives from the Pleistocene. The composition lost some spectacularity but gained in accuracy!

Here is the sketch with the perspective lines

And here is the finished oil painting with all the animals in place.
thylaco-scene baja watermark

Denizens of Madrid’s Miocene woods: “sabre-toothed” ruminants

Continuing with our imaginary stroll through the sheltered valleys of Madrid’s Aragonian (between 15 and 11 million years ago) we might find among the vegetation some of the ruminants which could have served as prey to such early cats as Styriofelis.
Most of these ruminants would have been smallish animals, rather unimpressive at first sight, but several of them had in common a more sinister trait, not evident perhaps during our first glimpse: they had vicious, saber-like canines that protruded beyond their upper lips even with closed mouths. The impressive antlers and horns of many modern ruminants were still millions of years in the future, and these early, modest-sized relatives used their canine teeth for display against rival cospecifics, and even to inflict nasty wounds. Even today there are living ruminants like the mouse-deer and the musk deer, which still have fearsome tusks and put them to good use.
One of the smallest ruminants of Madrid’s Miocene woods was Dorcatherium, a tragulid and thus a close relative of today’s mouse deer that stood only some 25 cm tall at the shoulder. It would normally be found close to water, and in fact its modern relatives are known to actually dive for safety!.

Here is a life reconstruction of Dorcatherium
dorcatherium-paisaje baja

With the approximate size of a roe deer or a fallow deer, the early cervid Heteroprox was still within the size range of potential prey for Styriofelis. Like Dorcatherium, it also had protruding canine teeth, but it also had small and relatively simple antlers wich allowed different fighting styles when rival males confronted.

Here is a life reconstruction of Heteroprox in its environment
heteroprox-paisaje baja

And here is a close up of the head where you can see the tips of its canine teeth just protruding beyond the upper lips

These are just a couple among the myriad species that inhabited the woods and praires of Miocene Madrid. We will be seeing more of them in coming posts!

Denizens of Madrid’s Miocene woods: the early cat Styriofelis

The city of Madrid is built upon an enormous extension of sedimentary rock of Miocene age, so that whenever people dig on its soil, fossils from the “Age of Mammals” are more than likely to appear.
Most fossil sites in the city are of Aragonian age (the Aragonian is a section of the middle Miocene ranging between some15 and 11 Million years ago), and while the bird’s eye view shown in a previous post ( revealed a rather arid landscape, the fact is there was a variety of environments, from dry, open prairies to shadowy woodlands in the margins of water courses and in sheltered valleys. The water currents coming downhill would collect the remains of animals from different environments and accumulate them downstream in low-lying areas, which would become the fossil sites.
One animal you would meet in the wooded places was the early cat Styriofelis. This was one of the earliest members of the “feline” half of the cat family, while the larger Pseudaelurus, which lived at the same time, was among the first of the sabertooths. For a long time Styriofelis was known only on the basis of cranial fragments and dentitions, but back in the early 1990s the finding of an almost complete skeleton from the site of Sansan in France gave us a much more complete picture of the middle Miocene felines.
Shortly after the discovery, the French paleontologist Leonard Ginsburg kindly sent me a collection of photos and measurements of the individual bones of S. lorteti (which back in those years was still known as “Pseudaelurus lorteti”). Many years later when Leonard sadly passed away, we published a detailed description of the skeleton in a scientific volume dedicated to his memory.
As revealed by the Sansan fossil, Styriofelis lorteti was a cat about the size of a large lynx, with relatively short forelimbs and quite long hindlimbs. Such body proportions suggest good climbing abilities and a preference for wooded habitats.

Here is a combined reconstruction of the skeleton and life appearance of Styriofelis lorteti based on the Sansan fossils.
lorteti-skel-life combinado baja

And here is the reconstructed animal as it would have looked if we could find it in the Miocene woodlands of Madrid.

Finally, here is the link to our scientific description of the Sansan skeleton.

Sabertooth and prey: selecting a frame from the action.

When preparing to represent a scene from the distant past, we sometimes wish we could just travel back in time and make a photo. In reality, our working process improves if we mentally recreate some of the background story for the imaginary “snapshot” we are going to take.
Having the “big picture” in our mind gives more meaning to each pencil stroke. Let us take as an example the scene from the American Miocene showing a conflict between two adult Barbourofelis fricki, from my latest book “Sabertooth”. One sabertooth defends the Syntethoceras carcass from the other, but what had happened before?
Functional anatomy indicates that these animals would only rarely scavenge, and would hunt most of their food. But, did the two predators kill the prey together, or is one of them challenging the rightful hunter? As discussed elsewhere, there is evidence to suggest that subadult Barbourofelis may have helped their mothers to catch really big prey, but it is most likely that adult individuals would hunt on their own. So, in our picture only one “cat” did the killing.

In this fragment of an oil painting depicting the Miocene environments of Love Bone Bed, Florida, we see some large Barbourofelis cubs trying to help their mother to bring down a rhinoceros.
barbourofelis at Love-Bone-bed baja

For a single adult sabertooth, catching agile prey such as Syntethoceras would require a lot of patience, precision, and more than a bit of luck. Imagine then its rage if another sabertooth appears and wants to take the fruit of its efforts! The outcome of the conflict would depend on the differences in size, and on how starved each contestant was…

This sequence of events had been in my mind for a few years, and now and then I would take a few minutes to sketch this or that part of the story. Here are some quick drawings of the capture process:
collage persec y captura-baja

One version of the fight (minus the carcass) became the cover of some editions of our book on Prehistoric Mammals:
BarbourofelisFricki fight1

When the book “Sabertooth” started to take shape, I found I needed an illustration of a conflict around a carcass, so I decided to ellaborate on that part of the sequence. Here are some of the sketches:
fight sketch-2 baja

fight sketch-3 baja

fight sketch-5-background baja

Want to see a glimpse of the process of the making of the digital color painting? Watch this short clip of the film “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life” on YouTube:

Want to learn much more about the whole process of reconstruction, from the excavation of sabertooth fossils to the final touches of illustrations? Download the full 35 -minute film from our store at Wild World Visuals:

Metailurus or Yoshi? Meet the real cats behind the names

We all know that there are the “normal” or conical toothed cats, and the sabertoothed cats.
But there is a group of fossil cats, sometimes called the “false sabertooths”, which look intemediate between the two, in a confusing and, I would say, annoying way. Their “intermediate-ness” is annoying because it has created a lot of confusion regarding their exact affinities.
These cats, including among others the genera Metailurus and Dinofelis, are known as “Metailurins” (if you think they are a tribe) or “Metailurines” (for those who consider them a subfamily). For some paleontologists, they are true sabertooth cats, that is, they belong in the subfamily Machairodontinae, even if the “sabertooth features” are only moderately expressed in them. But for other specialists, Metailurines are just conical-toothed cats (and thus members of the subfamily Felinae) which have converged to a moderate degree with true sabertoths… Who is right? An overview of the published evidence has convinced me that the arguments in favour of their “sabertoothedness” are more convincing, and so in my book “Sabertooth” I include them in the machairodontine ranks, but not without making the customary cautions.
This is a less than satisfactory state of affairs, but things get even more frustrating when researchers find that the names applied to some metailurin species don’t fit the strict rules of nomenclature. It is hard enough for the layman, and even for the specialist, to keep track of the formal changes in the names of fossil species over the years, but as new fossils throw new light on the anatomy of animal groups, there are too many opportunities for the old nomenclatures to come down crumbling and create further confusion.
One such example is the finding of a beautifully preserved skull of a metailurin cat in the Balkans, recently described by Spassov and Geraads ( here is the reference: Spassov and Geraads 2014. A New Felid from the Late Miocene of the Balkans and the Contents of the Genus Metailurus Zdansky, 1924 (Carnivora, Felidae). Journal of Mammalian Evolution)
In principle the skull is very similar to those of metailurin cats of the genus Metailurus, and in particular to the small species that most specialists refer to as Metailurus parvulus. But it differs from previously described skulls in a series of anatomical features that make it similar to, guess what -a cheetah! Yes, the new cat has a domed skull, with a convex dorsal outline and enlarged frontal sinuses, making it different enough from other Metailurus to lead the authors to create a new species name, which (in principle) would make it Metailurus garevskii. This is a relatively small cat, intermediate between a lynx and a cheetah, and thus similar to Metailurus parvulus, and smaller than Metailurus major. But then the authors consider that it is so different from M. major (the type species of the genus, that is the species for which the genus name was originally created) that it indeed deserves to belong in a separate genus, which they name Yoshi. And they think that the new cat is not alone in that genus, because the small M. parvulus is also very different from the big M. major, and more similar to their new species, and in their view the paleontologist Zdansky was wrong to put the two animals together under one genus name to begin with… So they propose that M. parvulus is also part of their new genus Yoshi.
So far so good, but they propose more changes. In their view, the species name M. parvulus was not formally valid, because that name was created for fossils that are incomplete (fragments of mandibles mostly) and not diagnostic enough, so we should all be using the name M. minor, created years later by Zdansky for some nice skull fossils from China…
The result? If we accept the proposal of the paper’s authors, the animal that appears as Metailurus parvulus in my recently published book “Sabertooth”, should now be called Yoshi minor. Is this the right move? May be it is, altough further study may tell otherwise. And in any case, the rules of zoological nomenclature when applied to fossil vertebrates are a source of endless confusion and even embarassment. During the XIX and much of the XX century, paleontologists went in a sort of race to name as many new species as they could, and some times they used pitiful scraps of fossil bone as a justification to create yet another name that would go to their credit. Paleontological curricula were built like that, but later scholars have faced the ungrateful duty of clearing up the mess, and in the meantime, well-loved names (remember Brontosaurus?) have been discredited after long years of use.

But what about the real cats behind these names? They say a picture is worth a thousand words so for now I will just illustrate them here and leave a longer discussion of them for another post!

First, here is my reconstruction of the head of Yoshi garevskii, based on the amazing skull described in the new study. The outline and proportions of the head are indeed cheetah-like, with a marked angle between the nose and the forehead, and the upper canines are so short that their tips would barely be visible in life.


And here is a reconstruction of the whole body of Metailurus parvulus, actually a combination of the skeletal and life restorations from my book “Sabertooth”

Metailurus-parvulus-skel-and-life transparent baja

If we follow the proposals in the new paper, this animal now needs to be called Yoshi minor. The skeleton, as revealed by a complete specimen from Kerassia (Greece) and several unpublished specimens from China, does indeed resemble the cheetah to some degree in having long and gracile limb bones, although the cursorial (running) adaptations look less extreme, and the forelimbs in particular are considerably shorter. Whether these similarities imply a degree of functional convergence with the cheetah is something that will require careful anatomical studies. But certainly the animal in life would have an elegant, long-limbed appearance quite different from that of the more familiar, powerful sabertooth cats of the Plio-Pleistocene.

For a more complete coverage of the Metailurines, go and read “Sabertooth”! And remember that no matter howe many times we change their names, the real, once living animals are the thing that matters!

Here is a link to the Spassov and Geraads paper: