DINOFELIS: PRINCE OF DARKNESS OR DARK PRINCE?

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.
dinofelis-eating-australopithecus-Sterkfontein low res

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!.

Here is a reconstruction of a hypothetical melanistic form of Dinofelis barlowi.
Dinofelis-Barlowi melanistic low res

Posted on 19/11/2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Great pictures! Keep up the awesome work!

  2. This is a beautiful entry! Poetry woven with science and glorious art. We look back through time and dream of what must have been the stuff of our ancestors’ nightmares, even if the fatalities were only occasional. Our relationship with the big cats goes way back.

  3. Thanks Joelle! Yes our fates have been linked to those of the big cats since the beginning of our lineage. We started as occasional prey, then we apparently became “kleptoparasites” of the sabretooths, and finally we stole the throne of the big predator guild, so that even if big cats still take people occasionally even today, as species they are at our mercy. Their survival is in our hands, and that is not a very promising situation for them!

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