Monthly Archives: November 2015
If you could travel back in time to Early Pleistocene Africa, and you were lucky enough to come across a sabretooth of the genus Dinofelis, chances are that the animal would be sound asleep. One thing I have learned from my observations of the big cats in the wild is that they are masters of the art of just being there, but that means much more than the plain old fact that predators need to conserve energy.
Dinofelis barlowi was probably well at home in forests and riverine woods. But just in case a bigger sabretooth like Homotherium would happen to pass by, Dinofelis would often choose to sleep in the branches
For one thing, cats dream a lot. Just look at your pet cat fast asleep in the sofa and watch for the moment it enters the REM sleep. Like yourself, it starts to move its eyes rapidly behind closed eyelids as it crosses into the world of dreams, and make no mistake, it has serious business to attend there, because dreaming is an essential step in learning from the experiences gained in the waking hours. Cats spend most of their time doing nothing, but when they do things, it is often quite dramatic things. Each action has decisive consequences, from which they must learn if they want to live another day.
As part of my paleontological reconstruction work I have spent a lot of time measuring bones, studying dissected specimens and checking the anatomical accuracy of 3D models. Such work predisposes me to see the cats as marvels of design, killing machines of refined biomechanical perfection. But when you can spend some time with the real big cats in the wild, you start to pay more attention to how they pass the day. That is how I have got the overwhelming impression that cats are natural born learners, and real learning needs a lot of sleep!. Digesting meat is a simple process, which is why the cats have very short intestines. But digesting experience is far more complex, and a large proportion of the 18 hours they idle away each day is spent doing just that.
This lion I saw at the Masai Mara in 2006 shows that voluptuous joy in doing nothing that only cats can achieve!
So, next time you come across a sleeping feline while on safari, don´t be frustrated. We can see them hunting often enough in nature documentaries. But inactivity is a more important part of the feline essence than we often acknowledge. And sure enough it was every bit as essential for the sabretooths!
Want to see the big cats in the wild with us? Then join our “Drawing the Big Cats” safari! check this video of the 2015 edition:
I can hardly believe that it has already been more than 3 months since we returned from this year’s “Drawing the big Cats” safari in Botswana! After three years in a row enjoying this amazing adventure, there is one thing I can tell you: it is me who is learning to draw the big cats again! As I try to transmit my experience to the participants, I feel as humbled as they do in front of the African savannah and the creatures that inhabit it, especially, but not only, the big felines.
Guests have ranged from experienced professionals to people without any artistic experience, but with plenty of curiosity and passion for the felines and the wilderness around them. All of us have felt transformed at the end of each safari, both enriched and in need of some “quality time” back home, in order to digest the intense experiences lived during the trip.
Now I have finally been able to put together a small selection of video clips that allow me to share with you some of the intensity and atmosphere of this safari. There is so much stuff left out… but there is only so much you can compress into a 3-minute edition!
Watch the video here:
More to come about this magical experience!
And remember, if you want to join our next departure, contact Elephant Trails at:
Or contact me at:
One of the most striking fossil finds of the “false sabretooth” Dinofelis was made at Bolt´s Farm, in the Sterkfontein valley of South Africa. There, the remains of three cats were found together with those of about a dozen baboons. This discovery contributed to the legend of Dinofelis as an specialist primate killer, but was it?
At other cave sites from the Sterkfontein valley, the remains of Dinofelis are often found not far from those of our hominid relatives, an association which led the paleontologist C.K. Brain to suggest that Dinofelis was probably sharing the caves with the hominids and taking advantage of their proximity to feast on their flesh with alarming frequency.
The idea that Dinofelis was some kind of Nemesis for our early ancestors has a strange fascination, which was brilliantly put in words by Bruce Chatwick in his book “The Songlines”. He writes: “Could it be, one is tempted to ask, that Dinofelis was Our Beast? A Beast set aside from all the other Avatars of Hell? The Arch-Enemy who stalked us, stealthily and cunningly, wherever we went? But whom, in the end, we got the better of? Coleridge once jotted in a notebook, ‘The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman.’ What is so beguiling about a specialist predator is the idea of an intimacy with the Beast! For if, originally, there was one particular Beast, would we not want to fascinate him as he fascinated us? Would we not want to charm him, as the angels charmed the lions in Daniel’s cell?”
Haunting ad these ideas may be, scientific evidence suggests that Dinofelis, like any big cat of its size, would get the bulk of its food from those huge protein factories that are ungulate herds. Antelopes, pigs and horses make up a much larger proportion of the available biomass than primates, and usually are less tricky to catch. We use to think of our hominid relatives as easy prey, but that is largely a myth. Justy like chimps or gorillas, early hominins were strong creatures living in groups, and would likely use sticks and stones to good advantage during any conflict. Unless it caught an isolated, wounded or ill individual, a solitary cat like Dinofelis could have a very hard time trying to procure a hominid meal.
Dinofelis barlowi feasting on an australopithecine, while jackals await their turn to scavenge. Occasional as the killling of a hominid could be, it would make a deep impression on the victim´s surviving mates, and they would certainly feel deep fear for the predator.
But that doesn´t mean it wouldn´t take one of our ancestors now and then. For one thing, it was a more adaptable cat than the more specialized sabretooths such as Megantereon or Homotherium, almost obligate hunters of large ungulates. As climatic oscillations made the forests spread and contract during the Pleistocene, Dinofelis would find it easier to adapt than those other machairodonts. Given its body proportions and size, it may have lived not only in savannahs and woodlands, but also in deep forest like modern leopards and jaguars do. In that case it would find a suitable home in the jungles while the extreme sabretooths were cornered in shrinking savannahs, and its fossil record would only show a small fragment of its past distribution.
In a time when the huge Homotherium and early forms of the lion roamed the African woodlands, Dinofelis could not claim to be the King of the beasts, but it was a worthy Prince, and it apparently survived the more specialized sabretooths in Africa by millennia.
Like leopards or jaguars, it is possible that some populations of Dinofelis living in forests would develop melanistic forms. So, although depicting it as the “Prince of darkness” seems a bit exagerated in the light of avalable evidence, it might as well have been a dark prince. And a most impressive one!.