Monthly Archives: December 2014
Do you like the big cats? Of course you do! If you want to take your love for the big cats to a whole new level, there is nothing like coming to their natural environment and meet them face to face. But let us not be content with just making a snapshot and keep driving for the next animal. We want to make a deeper acquaintance with the ultimate predators. We sketch them, we discuss their behaviour, anatomy and adaptations, and we let all those impressions sink deep within ourselves.
Spending day after day in the African wilderness in search of the felines, meeting them and sharing with like minded-companions what we are learning everyday… that is my idea of a life-changing experience! We have been doing it for the last two years and it keeps getting better. If you feel like joining us in this safari, just check the details and start dreaming about it. But don´t dream for too long, there are few seats available, so book soon!
Download the PDf with information for the previous edition here (the 2015 document is in preparation but all details remain essentially the same):
Watch a video about the 2014 edition of the safari here:
For a paleoartist, few things are as exciting as the opportunity to be the first one to make a detailed reconstruction of an extinct animal. After all, before somebody can take the time to reconstruct a fossil species, it is essentially a pile of bones in a museum collection, labelled with some unpronounceable latin name. And as latin names go, Haploidoceros mediterraneus certainly ranks among the less pronounceable ones!
The males of this species (larger than a fallow deer, but quite smaller than a red deer) had a pair of antlers unlike those of any deer we can see today.
Antlers are tricky three-dimensional objects to draw when you lack a live model to look at, so in order to make sure I got the shape of this one right, I created a digital 3D model based on orthogonal views of several fossil antlers, a model which I could rotate and light at will in the 3D program, then render it in 2d to serve me as a model for the final drawing.
The exceptional fossil which served as the main basis for my reconstruction was found at the late Pleistocene (about 85,000 years old) fossil site of Preresa in the Madrid province, which also yielded fossils of many other mammal species together with a range of stone tools attributed to Neanderthals. This fact led the exhibit curators to propose that I would create a scene where a Neanderthal is seen carrying a freshly hunted Haploidoceros. A rather brutal end for my lovely little deer, but an episode that very likely took place many times in the Madrid valley shortly before the last Ice Age!
Now this fossil finding is the center of a temporary exhibit in the museo Arqueológico de la Comunidad de Madrid, in Alcalá de Henares.
It has been quite satisfaction to see the finished exhibit this morning at the museum, and also to get a copy of the accompanying book, to which I have contributed a chapter about the reconstruction process that led to the creation of the Hapliodoceros images.
It has been several busy months since we returned from this year’s edition of the “Drawing the big Cats” safari, and I have had less time than I would have liked to digest and edit the massive amount of footage shot during that trip. But I am starting to get to grips with the material, which is really gorgeous. Take 5 minutes to watch this video chronicle showing some of the highlights of our trip. And then consider joining us in 2015, there still are seats available!
Why is it that there are no sabertooths around today? Call it a matter of coincidence. Being a sabertooth is just one of the potential ways for a terrestrial predator to deal with the challenge of catching large prey and not getting killed in the attempt. The “sabertooth model” has evolved repeatedly in independent lineages of mammalian predators, but there have been a few times over the last 50 million years when there have been no sabertooths around, and (unluckily for us sabertooth enthusiasts) we now live in one such hiatus. But the potential to evolve the “sabertooth adaptations” is still around. Just look at your domestic cat sleeping in the sofa and consider that just a few key mutations would turn that tabby into a basic machairodont. First, make it bigger, maybe lynx size; second, introduce a key mutation to make the upper canines longer and laterally flattened; third, let the animal and its descendants play with their new weapons. Soon they will discover that the usual feline throat-bite becomes a devastating way to cause its prey to bleed to death in seconds, and from that moment on, a set of behavioural adjustments paves the road for the selection of morphological mutations that improve the efficiency of the sabertooth killing bite. And some fifteen million years later, you get something like Smilodon!
But what happened before there were cats, or any mammalian predators around? Well, nature did experiment with the sabertoothed predator model long before mammals or even dinosaurs appeared on Earth, but given the raw material then available, the result would have looked pretty alien for a human observer. Of course I am talking about the gorgonopsians, those synapsids (distant relatives of mammals) from the Permian period, which were the dominat predators of their time and looked like no creature walking this planet today.
Let us look at Rubidgea, one of the largest (brown bear sized) and latest gorgonopsians, which lived in South Africa some 250 million years ago. You would not call it a sabertooth, but it had many of the anatomical features that define those predators. The fearsome upper canines (1) were the primary killing weapon, while the protruding incisors (2) acted both to stabilize the bitten area (thus protecting the canines from some lateral strains) and to pull chunks of meat off the carcass when feeding. The complex shape of the cranio-mandibular joint (3) allowed the mandible to remain articulated with the skull even at gapes in excess of 90 degrees. Some ventral muscles of the neck (4) attaching in the base of the skull contributed to the downward motion neccesary to sink the canines into the flesh of prey. And once the gape was reduced through head depression, the jaw-closing musculature (5) acted to complete the bite.
Just as in mammalian sabertooths, the adaptations of Rubidgea allowed it to dispatch its prey quickly through massive blood loss, thus minimizing the time of struggle and the possibilities that the trashing prey would hurt the predator. Beyond that, the anatomical details were of course enormously different. But the story of the gorgonopsians shows us how some of the key adaptations of sabertooths are among the great, recurrent themes of the evolution of terrestrial predators.
Want to learn much more about the evolution of sabertooths? Get my latest book “Sabertooth”:
Wan to learn much more about how we bring those animals back to life through reconstruction? Get our documentary film “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life”:
Watch the trailer here: