FELINE TABLE MANNERS, SABRETOOTHS, AND MOVIE PROSTHETICS
It’s been quite some time since my last post, and one reason has been the need to digest the experiences of our latest “Drawing the Big Cats” safari to Botswana. What you see in the African wilderness during just a few days can keep your mind busy for months, trying to make sense of your observations. Our friends at “Elephant Trails” have once more done an amazing job at taking us where the action is, and now it is my turn to share some bits. But before, a little flashback.
In earlier posts I discussed the way big cats use their teeth to feed, and what implications it has for the way the sabretooth cats would eat. Such apparently technical considerations are important not only for inferring behavior, but also to reconstruct the sabretooths’ life appearance. As I’ve mentioned before, some old hypotheses about the way sabretooths dealt with their food led to rather shocking reconstructions. Some experts claimed that the sabretooths would need very long mouths, in a sort of monstrous “ear to ear” smile, because if they had normal feline lips their huge upper canines would simply get in the way of food items. Watching a few wildlife documentaries made me suspect that such theories were likely wrong, then my colleagues and me went on to dissect some felines and make inferences with a more tangible biological basis. We published our results quite a few years ago, but there was still a lot to learn.
This year we have had plenty of opportunity to see the big cats gorging themselves. This may sound unremarkable but it is not. In wildlife films you see the predators hunting and eating all the time, but that is an effect of the way they “filter” hundreds of hours of observation. In real life when you drive through the savanna it is the herbivores that you see eating, munching leaves and grasses almost without pause (much as you would see if you could make a Pleistocene safari, I’m afraid!). But the predators you rarely meet, to start with, and when you come across them they are usually just resting or casually making their way from point A to point B. Hunting? Hardly ever. Eating? Only rarely so. Frustrating as this may be, it makes you appreciate even the briefest glimpse of the big cats. So, it is not every day that you see a group of adolescent lions gorging on the carcass of a hippo; or two male lions eating a young buffalo in one sitting right in front of your eyes, reducing the plump calf to little more than skin and bones; or a leopard consuming a huge catfish it just fished… as we did in this trip. It was a long and comprehensive lesson in big cat table manners, and we sat in front of the feline banquets long enough to see all the details that the wildlife documentaries consider too slow and boring to show. But we were not there just to be entertained: we intended to learn.
My preliminary conclusions: just like the tissues in their lips and mouth, the cats’ feeding behavior is flexible, more so than we imagine. Our tabby at home grabs its cat-chow rather mechanically; after all it’s just a mound of little biscuits. But dealing with the carcass of a large animal is a completely different matter.
Surprisingly, the first tool our Botswana lion used to attack his buffalo carcass was his rough tongue. The vigorous licking wets the fur and makes the skin more tender and ready for the biting. Then comes the first carnassial bite, when the cat uses its scissor-like cheek teeth to tear open the prey’s skin. Once the carcass is open, the cat bites at the different portions in different ways, as a butcher would use different knives for different cuts. Now it cuts straight with the incisors, then it applies the side of its mouth for another carnassial biting, then it just uses its whole mouth to detach and gulp a large piece of meat.
These observations enrich my previous concepts about how sabertooths would eat. Admittedly, some of the things lions do with their food the sabretooths probably could not do. Yes, their sabres would get in the way if they tried to bite in this or that particular way. But most of the biting styles deployed during the feline meals we saw were perfectly feasible even with the huge upper canines of a fully grown Smilodon. Such observations are not totally new. Blaire Van Valkenburgh made a careful field study of carcass consumption several years ago which accounted for many of these eating modalities (you can see her article here). But for me as a paleoartist, watching and recording these things first hand is like finding a treasure.
In fact, many sabertooth species had an advantage for this style of biting: their proportionally longer necks would allow them to pull even farther. One of these days I need to draw Smilodon fatalis doing just that on a bison carcass at Rancho la Brea… I am sure it happened many times!
Reality can provide the answers we need, but often they come from where we least expect them, and sabretooth feeding habits are no exception. Many readers may remember Jean-Jacques Annaud’s classic film “Quest for Fire”. Those interested in the making of the film will remember that the sabretooths appearing in a key sequence were in fact trained lions (the days of creating furry creatures with digital FX were still faaaar in the future), provided with a set of prosthetic upper canines. But there is one detail less widely known: unlike the elephants that were disguised as woolly mammoths for the film, who really hated their costumes, the lions were not too uncomfortable with their prosthetics, so the animals’ trainers decided not to remove them between filming sessions, thus saving the lions and themselves some uncomfortable handling. And the lions did eat quite normally while wearing their draculesque fake fangs. Not a problem for them! It is a pity that back when that film was made there were no such things as our DVD “making-of” specials. Otherwise, we might have some valuable footage of those lions demonstrating how real life is always more flexible than some scientist’s minds…