ANCIENT AFRICA: SABERTOOTH KILL AFTERMATH
In a few days we will be heading for Botswana for one more edition of our “Drawing the Big Cats Safari”. Our main goal is to observe the felines, but that is only part of what we get: we actually get a ticket to ancient Africa. The big predators are one key piece in the giant puzzle of living ecosystems, and a place that still can sustain its large carnivores is a place where the laws of nature remain healthily at work, and for that reason I experience every safari as a kind of time-travel.
On each trip, as I board the safari vehicle for the first game-drive, I feel as if I enter a different dimension. Pristine landscapes, untouched vegetation and the diversity of wildlife bring my senses to a state of natural alertness -not in vain human kind evolved in the African savannah! One unforgettable first-day game drive took place in Samburu, Kenya, in 1999. We had spent most of the day driving from Nairobi, and we had only time for a short evening drive through the reserve on our way to the camp for the night. As we drove through the scenic riverine woods along the margins of the Ewaso Nyro river, we found another vehicle that had stopped on the margin of the dirt track: they were watching a female leopard that had just killed an impala ram. Althought the high branches of the palm trees were still golden with the last rays of the sun, the deep bush where the big cat stood with its prey was already in deep shadow. Everyone on board of the vehicles was silent, aware of facing a high natural drama. It was almost as if we didn´t have the right to spy on this decisive moment of life and death, as if both predator and prey were emitting a sort of primeval energy that gave us the goosebumps. We just couldn´t take our eyes from the golden spotted cat and the athletic shape and powerful horns of the fallen antelope. We remained there in awe for many minutes as the cat started to feed and its tiny cubs emerged from the bush, as did an adult-sized young from the previous year, but then we had to hurry for camp.
In later trips I have seen leopards with their prey on several occasions, and each time the prey was an impala. It seems the fates of these two species are tightly linked, but the fact is the impala is an older inhabitant of the African woods and savannahs than the leopard. In Kenya there were impalas (genus Aepyceros) rather similar to the modern ones as early as the late Miocene, some 6 million years ago, while the earliest fossils of leopard ancestors (genus Panthera) are known from fossil deposits of Pliocene age, some 5 million years ago, from the Himalayas. Some time afternwards, leopard-like cats entered Africa, where they are first recorded some 3.8 million years ago, but the ancestral impalas had not been free of predation in the meantime, because several species of sabertooth cats shared their African habitats since the Miocene.
The impala is so well adapted to the ecotone between grassland and woodland, that it has barely changed in 6 million years. Its acrobatic leaps are among the most sublime, if sometimes underrated, spectacles of Africa. We saw this impressive ram in Chobe, Botswana, in 2014
Becuase of my professional bias, during my African trips I can’t help imagining how would those same places look in the distant past, and what animals would occupy the ecological niches of the modern species. If we could travel back to the early Pleistocene, about 1,6 million years ago, we might come across a predation scene where an impala nearly identical to the modern ones would fall prey to a sabertooth cat of the genus Megantereon. About the same size as a leopard, Megantereon would behave similarly to the spotted pantherine in many ways: it would hunt its prey through careful stalking, approaching to within just a few meters before launching an explosive attack. If the kill took place in the grass, the cat would drag its prey as soon as possible to an area with good cover to hide it among the bushes. After all, big hyenas and lion-sized sabertooths (Homotherium) roamed the plains and were always eager to steal the smaller cat’s kills.
But the shape of Megantereon‘s teeth implied some behavioral differences: on one hand, the sabertooth cat would be less able to haul complete large carcasses up the trees, because of its relatively fragile canines. Lighter, partly consumed kills would be easier to handle, although the cat itself was a good climber and at least could always save its own life by climbing to the higher branches.
But the most important difference concerned the killing bite, which implied a lot more bloodshed than in the case of modern cats, and thus if we could see Megantereon within the few minutes after a kill, it would be a rather gory sight.
Here is a reconstruction of Megantereon whitei from the early Pleistocene of Africa, taking a breath as it drags its impala prey to the bush for quiet consumption. Part of my book project “Big Cats of Africa, Past and Present”
Today we still have impalas in Africa, but Megantereon is long gone, a proof of the vulnerability of extreme specialists like the sabertooths and the resilience of adaptable species like the impala -and the leopard. But that doesn’t mean I don´t miss the possibility of seeing such a magnificent beast as Megantereon was!