Monthly Archives: June 2015
One amazing feat that leopards do on a daily basis is to transform themselves into something more similar to a snake than a cat, then crawl away and disappear in the bush right in front of your eyes. That magic trick is something truly wonderful to behold, but really tricky to draw. The limbs of the leopard almost appear to have been reabsorbed into the body as it moves along with its belly touching the ground, and the pattern of spots makes it even harder to tell apart the different parts of the cat’s body, as the loose skin wraps around the whole thing.
In order to capture the essence of this action with our pencil and remain true to the animal´s anatomy and proportion, I find it useful to project a mental image of the cat´s skeleton inside the apparently chaotic external shape. The leopard may appear endlessly flexible, but each of its bones is a rigid unit, and they are there, inside the body, giving it shape.
We had the opportunity to see a female leopard doing that trick right in front of us a couple of years ago in Botswana during our “Drawing the Big Cats” safari, and that encounter allows me to analyze the anatomy and action of the cat with pencil and paper.
Once I have a clearer idea of the position and shape of the limbs flexing inside the wraps of skin, I proceed to draw the leopard without paying attention to the spots, just as if I were drawing a lioness or a puma.
When the cat is already taking shape in the paper I try to put in place some of the most distinctive spots, those that stand out and seem to create a pattern around which other spots arrange themselves.
I always find it fascinating to perceive the anatomical machinery at work under the wonderful skin of a big cat. Just like our tracker’s mission while on safari is to find a cat that is so damned good at not being seen, I feel that one of the missions of the artist is to rejoice in those structures that appearances would tend to hide from us.
I am looking forward to share more big cat encounters like this with fellow explorers next august, in the 2015 edition of “Drawing the Big Cats”. To have the privilege of learning first-hand from these magnificent animals in their habitat is a miracle to which I never really get used -and I can never have enough of it!
Paleontologists are thoroughly familiar with the shape and disposition of the teeth of the sabretooth Homotherium, and could never confuse them with those of a modern big cat. But when the animal was alive, soft tissue covered the maxilla and teeth, and obscured the differences. Obviously the proportions of the head, with a massive muzzle and a straight dorsal outline, were clearly different from those of a lion.
But if we could see Homotherium performing the “flehmen” gesture, then the depth of the differences with any modern big cat would become truly evident. During “flehmen”, cats pull back the lips in a grimace and elevate the snout, in order to allow odoriferous particles in the air to reach the vomeronasal organ, located back in the palate. They often do it in reaction to finding the odour of another cat, and they can judge, for instance, if a female is in oestrus.
But for the casual observer, the Flehmen response is a wonderful way to see the shape of the cat’s dentition, and in the case of Homotherium, it would reveal that the animal was “all incisors”. Effectively, while the incisors of a lion are relatively small and arranged in a neat row closely in front of the canines, those of Homotherium were disproportionately large and projecting in an arch. So spectacular were the incisors that the canines themselves would not impress us too much, especially compared to those of dirktooth cats like Smilodon.
In this reconstruction of Homotherium doing “Flehmen” you can see the large size of the incisors and how they porject far in front of the upper canines. In the lower jaw, the the incisors are so large that there is little difference with the lower canines.
Another advantage of the Flehmen response is that the animals keep it for several seconds while slowly moving the head sideways, thus allowing us to observe the teeth at leaisure. Artists often prefer to depict the animals in aggresive situations, where bared teeth are part of a violent encounter and where, in real life, we would only see a brief flash of the creature’s weaponry. But if I were one of the hominids that shared the environments of Pleistocene Europe with Homotherium, I would far prefer that the animal I met was doing flehmen rather than snarling in aggression. That way there would be greater chances that the impressive array of Homotherium‘s teeth wasn´t the last thing I saw in this world!
It has long been clear that Homotherium was the sabertooth genus that lasted longest in Europe, and the one that had most relevance for hominins living in that continent during the middle Pleistocene. Fossil finds from Atapuerca, for instance, showed its presence at a time when Homo heidelbergensis was well established in Spain. But the most dramatic evidence of coexistence between hominins and Homotherium arrived recently in the form of an amazing discovery at an already famous site: Schöningen.
The fossil site of Schöningen is known to archaeologists worldwide because of the miraculously preserved wooden spears found there in the late 1990s. The site yielded massive amounts of ungulate, and particularly horse remains, many of which showed clear signs of having been butchered by hominins, and the shape of the wooded spears, clearly designed to be thrown at a distance, gave clear indications as to how those horses would be hunted.
Last year, a new discovery was announced at Schöningen: several fossils of the sabretooth Homotherium had been found at the very same level (Schöningen 13 II-4) that had yielded the spears. The finds included several teeth of a young adult cat in pristine condition, and an impressive humerus bone.
Last week I had the privilege to attend a workshop that took place at the beautiful Paläon museum at Schöningen to discuss the relevance of the Homotherium finds and to place them in a truly multidisciplinary context. I was able to observe the new fossils first-hand, and the diversity of the talks and presentations at the meeting provided a kaleidoscopic perspective, and plentiful food for thought.
At 300,000 years old, these are the youngest Homotherium fossils to be found in a well-studied, stratified fossil site in Europe, and impressive as the findings are, the implications are simply phenomenal. Detailed studies will be published before too long that will change the way we see the interaction between humans and Homotherium.
At Schöningen, our extinct relatives had plenty of occasions to meet this imposing predator. Dangerous as those encounters could be, I would gladly trade myself for one of those hominins for a few days, for the chance of being face to face with Homotherium. But please, let me take with me one of those wonderful wooden spears. Just in case.