DECEIVINGLY FUZZY: THE FELINE FACE OF DINOFELIS PIVETEAUI

The Transvaal Caves in South Africa, popularly known as “The Cradle of Humankind”, are justly famous as the source of some of the most important hominin fossils in existence, but they have also yielded a few remarkable fossils of sabretooths. One of these is the holotype skull of Dinofelis piveteaui. This beautiful fossil, found at the cave of Kromdraai, was described as early as 1955 by Rosalie Ewer, and she already noted its marked sabretooth features: the dentition included a pair of flattened, flesh-piercing uper canines, an impressive row of enlarged incisors, and huge, blade-like carnassials for processing meat with enormous efficiency. Coupled with a specialized mastoid zone for insertion of powerful neck muscles, these adaptations allowed D. piveteaui to dispatch large prey with a proper sabretooth killing bite, causing massive blood loss and a quick death.

Several years ago I had the privilege to study that magnificent fossil at the Transvaal Museum, and my first impression was contradictory: all the sabre-tooth adaptations were there to be clearly seen, but the nice preservation of the Kromdraai skull shows something else: in spite of these “machairodontine” adpatations, the general morphology of the skull was remarkably feline: The muzzle was short (due in large part to the short diastemata, or empty spaces between the canines and premolar teeth), the cranium was broad across the zygomatic arches, the orbits were large and forward-looking and the dorsal outline of the skull was gently convex.

Here is a picture of the business end of the Dinofelis piveteaui skull, with its serious row of incisors and narrow, flattened sabres.
dinofelis piveteaui skull front low res

All in all, the geometry of this animal’s skull resembled that of a jaguar more than that of a “classic” sabretooth like Megantereon or Homotherium, with their long muzzles, narrow faces and straight dorsal outlines.Also, and in spite of their flattened shape, the upper canines were so short that barely the very tips, if anything, would show when the cat closed its mouth (as in the case of the clouded leopard, which has longer canines than any other modern cat and still they are mostly hidden by the upper lips).

Here is a side view of the D. piveteaui skull. In spite of being slightly crushed dorsoventrally, its general three-dimensional shape is preserved and shows a clearly feline-like outline.
dinofelis piveteaui skull side low res

One consequence of this conservative, feline geometry of the skull, is that the life appearance of the head of D. piveteaui would also be quite cat-like, especially when seen from the front. When relaxed, its warm and fuzzy look would barely let us imagine what a killing machine we had in front of us.

When we add flesh to the skull of D. piveteaui, the look is catlike and fuzzy. Aptly so, but there was a bloodier side to this undoubtedly beautiful cat
dinofelis piveteaui portrait low res

If we could see the animal baring its teeth during a fight with a rival cat, or with a bloody muzzle while dispatching its victim, we would get a more balanced view of the so-called false sabretooth. But that is a different story…

Posted on 30/10/2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hi Mauricio,

    Were any of the “panthera-like” Dinofelis spp. sympatric with the “sabertooth-like” ones? Was the american D. paleoonca one of these panthera like cats? (I’m just guessing from the name)

    • Hi Sebastian,
      “Panthera-like” species of Dinofelis have been found in the same fossil deposits as more “Sabertooth-like” species, but it is not sure that they lived exactly at the same place at the same time. There may have been ecological separations, so that one species could expand when the forests expanded and the other could retreat, so they both could dwell in the same place with a few thousand years difference -rather difficult to discern form the fossil record. We cannot be sure at present. In general it is unlikely that two species of similar body size belonging to the same genus would coexist.

  2. Hey Maurico,

    Do you have the source for (or at least the deposits with) the co-occurrence of multiple species of Dinofelis? I am not aware of any sites off the top of my head, and I can’t find anything on it in either Werdelin & Lewis (2001) or Cenozoic Mammals of Africa.

  3. Hi Douglass,
    The Koobi Fora formation East of lake Turkana in Kenya has yielded fossils of 3 species of Dinofelis: D. petteri, D. aronoki and D. pivetaui. In principle each species is found at a different “member” of the formation, concretely on the Tulu Bor (D. petteri), Upper Burgi and KBS (D. aronoki) and Okote (D. piveteaui), but the transitions between these formations occur in a few thousand years so one wonders how neatly the replacement would have occurred. At least one specimen of D. aronoki is labelled as coming from Tulu Bor. For reference please check Koobi Fora research project volume 7, 2103, by L. Werdelin and M. Lewis.

    • Mauricio,
      Thanks for the reply; I had a feeling that it was Koobi Fora that you were referring to. I’ll have to look into the site formation and deposition, and you’re absolutely correct – in sites with multiple members, especially ones with multiple members that are not separated by much temporal space, things get really interesting.
      Also, a big “What the hell?” regarding the misspelling of your name in the comment above. I’d like to blame it on autocorrect, but it’s really just my sloppy fingers. Mea culpa.

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