When you spend time in the African savannah you are surprised to see how relaxed the herbivores can be in the proximity of the big cats. Zebras and antelopes don’t stampede at the mere presence of a lion, but they rather observe it. Information flows in both directions, and the ungulates know how to read the body language of predators. A feline walking casually is no cause of panic, and the potential prey just look at it cautiously until it disappears. And it makes sense, because if zebras had to be in a constant state of panic at the possible presence of a predator, stress would kill them even before the predators would. For us humans as well, irrational fear of predators is probably something that developed once we abandoned our life as hunters-gatherers to become Neolithic farmers. Before that, cautious respect and a keen interest in the predators would be a far more useful attitude than panic.
As a sabertooth freak, I often imagine what it would be like to travel back in time and meet my favourite predators from the past. If I were in a B movie, a succesion of screams and chases would follow, and my survival would depend on being the star of the film or a mere sideshow, so I would really stand little chance of survival! But in the natural world, I should rather try to follow the example of the zebra and read the cat’s body language before running.
To see an adult Amphimachairodus walking your way would be in impressive sight by any standards. Tall as a lion, it would walk with a cat-like supination of the forepaws, although less exaggerated than in a lion: the structure of its elbow and wrist joints tell us that much. Free-swinging shoulder blades would move up and down as the cat stepped towards us. But the animal’s head would be subtly different from any modern cat’s. The face was narrower, with slightly smaller eyes looking less frontally, somehow intermediate between a lion’s and a wolf’s in terms of relative size and position. The muzzle was long and high but also narrow, with blade-like upper canines showing discretely beyond the upper lips.

Reconstruction of Amphimachairodus in frontal view. The animal was as tall as a lion with a distinctly cat-like walk, but it had a peculiar narrow head with a high and narrow muzzle and blade-like upper canines showing beyond the upper lips
amphimachairodus-front low res

Concerning body language, if the cat is walking upright and with a casual cadence, you have reason to think it is just minding its business rather than stalking you. A relaxed mouth further indicates lack of aggression, but ears pointing slightly backwards are less simple to read. In the general context of a relaxed animal they don’t mean much, but it could be the sabertooth is not very happy about something. Better observe it for a few seconds and see what those ears do, but remember that any part of the animal’s body generally works as a part of the whole, and if the cat is in an aggressive mood there will be other signs apart from those ears to show it…
Amphimachairodus lived a little too long ago for our bipedal hominin ancestors to have come across it, but other sabertooths, such as Homotherium and Megantereon, were familiar elements of their world. I am sure that body-language reading was more important than panic as a reaction to their presence. But timing is everything, and surely there was a right time to panic as well!

Posted on 11/12/2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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