Monthly Archives: November 2017

The Great Ibex Showdown

The complex shape of the ibex horns has evolved over millions of years for a very particular fighting style. You can study the morphology of the horn sheaths, horn cores and skull and see how the whole structure is reinforced to withstand the brutal blows, but to fully understand the relationship between form and function you need to see the real animals fighting each other. In one modality of their ritualized choreography, one of the contenders raises on his hind legs and gets ready to fall on the defender, who in turn adjusts his position to receive the attacker. As the impact becomes imminent, each animal orients its head quite precisely so that the forces will be properly channeled. In other occasions, both contenders raise and the trajectories towards impact are more symmetrical.

With extinct animals we can only infer their fighting styles from the morphology of their skulls and head appendages, but with living animals there is no end to how much we can learn by observing directly their real behavior. Such observations help us anchor more solidly our hypothesis about the habits of completely extinct beasts.

In this photo taken by my son Miguel, you can see two standing contenders about to start their descent, their laterally placed eyes fixed intently on each other as they prepare for the impact

In this other picture you can see the classic fight modality where one contender is distinctly above the other

This image shows the moment of impact, when even the hind legs stretch to liberate the immense energy of the blow

To see the whole process in action, check the second part of my Spanish ibex video here:

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Making Music for Nature Film

In my daily work I rarely keep art and science far apart. Science aims for total, detached objectivity, but I don´t think such a thing is possible for us humans, and certainly it is not something I can attain! Each observation of nature implies some emotional involvement, and for better or worse in all my productions those emotions end up coming to the surface in some way.
One aspect of this involvement is the music I compose for my videos. Reconstructing the anatomy of the sabertooths from the inside out is quite exciting, but the kind of emotion it stirrs in me is rather different from the one I experience when observing a violent clash between two imposing ibex males in the high mountians. As a result, videos showing such different contents require different, specific music, and I try to taylor make it or at least to choose from my existing compositions as wisely as I can.

In this clip from my video “Bringing the Sabertooths back to Life” you can listen to the more “electronic” sounds I used in many segments of that film, to convey a sense of how a careful technical study leads to exciting findings. In my wildlife videos I generally use more orchestral sounds to transmit the warm, direct emotions that you get when watching the dramas of animal life out in the wilderness:

Earlier this year I discovered Hans Zimmer’s masterclass on composing for film and decided to take it. Even from a quick look at the first lessons one feels exhilarated at the endless possibilities that music offers for enhancing and completing any film project. Mr. Zimmer is not only a genius, he efficiently and honestly transmits both the excitement and the tehcnical aspects of his craft.

As a first excercise while taking that course, I composed a piece of music for a short video about the behavior of the Spanish Ibex. Following Zimmer’s instructions, I started by composing a short, simple piano tune, as a core from which I would create all the variations that the story required. In that tune I tried to convey the basically sweet, harmless nature of the ibex, but it also contains a couple of chords with the potential of becoming more aggressive, as befits the powerful clashes of the males during the rut, or more mysterious, to reflect the vastness of what we don´t know abut the caprine mind.

In this other clip you can listen to some of the more “epic” sections of the soundtrack I composed for the ibex film:

Using brasses and timpani was a temptation I could not resist, but anyway I tried to dress the tune in warmer strings and even a playful harp to compensate for the in-your-face obviousness of the percussion. The big male ibex go at each other with devastating, almost murderous blows, yet the next moment they seem to behave as comrades, almost buddies. It is more complex than an all-out war, and so the music should also have something of that ambiguity.

Of course when you see Zimmer’s explanations it all appears so obvious, but for us mortals things are not nearly so simple! As I developed the themes my original piano piece seemed less and less adequate, and it constrained me unconfortably, but I decided to go ahead anyway. The result is far less elegant and effective than I dreamed when listening to the classes, but still a small step up the ladder from my previous compositions.

Learning from the best is deeply humbling but always exciting. Thanks to Mr. Zimmer and I promise to keep working hard as I progress through the course!

Swift pussy cat: Batallones’ little feline wonder revealed

The fossil sites of Batallones provide amazing insights into the predator guild of the Vallesian epoch (Late Miocene, 9,5 Ma) of Spain, and are best known for the incredible collection of fossils of sabre-toothed felids, including the leopard-sized Promegantereon and the lion-sized Machairodus. A less known fact is that the other “half” of the felid family, the felines (or “conical-toothed cats”) were already present and represented by a respectable sample of fossils at the site.
Those early relatives of our modern lions and tigers posed no threat for the sabertooths, because they were all much smaller animals. Two species are known from the site, the lynx-sized Pristifelis attica and the wildcat-sized Leptofelis vallesiensis. Years ago, in our initial description of the animal we called it Styriofelis vallesiensis because its dentition was very similar to that of earlier, Middle Miocene felines classified in the genus Styriofelis. However, our recent analysis of the postcranial bones of the small feline from Batallones has revealed unexpected differences with those earlier animals.
The middle Miocene Styriofelis turnauensis combined peculiar dental traits (in particular the retention of milk premolars in adult life) with a skeleton adapted for climbing, with short, robust limb bones. Such a skeleton can be considered “primitive” for felids, because the ancestral members of the family were mostly arboreal creatures. The small cat from Batallones shared with Styriofelis the retained milk teeth, but its limb bones now reveal a surprisingly early adaptation for fast, efficient locomotion on land. This condition almost mirrored the one seen in modern animals like the wildcat, but it most likely evolved independently, because the particular dental features preclude Leptofelis from being an ancestor of the modern species. In fact, the skeleton of the Batallones small cat is in itself a mosaic of features, including the presence of a well-developed quadratus plantae muscle inserting on the ankle bone. This muscle has an important function in climbing and it shows that in spite of being a proficient runner, Leptofelis vallesiensis could climb better than most modern cats, both to escape bigger predators and to catch small prey in the high branches. Also the hind limb was especially long and the knee articulation resembled that of modern small carnivores that are excellent jumpers and climbers, such as the genet. It is possible that Leptofelis used its leaping ability to capture small prey such as rodents and birds while foraging on the ground, like modern servals or caracals do. This unique combination of features convinced us of the need to create a new genus for this cat, and we coined the word “Leptofelis”, meaning “swift cat”.

In this illustration we show some of the preserved bones of Leptofelis superimposed to a hypothetical reconstruction of its complete skeleton.

There are many things we have learned from this study. On one hand, the early diversity of felines is greater than was thought some years ago, when virtually all fossil felines from the late Miocene were classified in the extant genus Felis. On the other hand, we see that the adaptations of feline cats for running not only appeared more precociously than thought, but in fact evolved several times independently. Also important is the fact that the postcranial skeleton, often overlooked in systematic studies, can provide decisive evidence for the proper classification of an extinct animal. And, finally, if we look at the larger picture, it seems that the combination of the small size of the early felines, the need to escape from larger predators, and the presence of vegetational cover in their environments probably provided the right adaptive pressures which led (more than once) to the evolution of the versatile body plan that we see in modern cats.

Here is a reconstruction of Leptofelis in the flesh. The coat colour patter is unknown in this animal and here it is reconstructed on the basis of species such as the marbled cat, whose coat markings appear to represent the ancestral patter for all living felines.

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You can check our original research paper in this link:

http://rdcu.be/x6Sl

Ibex wonder

The Spanish ibex is a spectacular species of caprine endemic to the Iberian peninsula. Powerful and bulky like other ibex, the Spanish one has possibly the most beautiful, geometrically complex horns of any species. Like all ibex, this creature has been perfected by evolution for two functions: to negotiate the abrupt terrain of its mountainous habitat, and to establish the herd’s mating hierarchy through dramatic horn-clashing fights among the males.
Drawing the three-dimensionally complex horns of mature Spanish ibex is always a challenge but when you get it right you are on your way to capturing the knightly grandeur of these magnificent beasts. Still, nothing compares to witnessing the incredible tournaments that take place in the mountains of central Spain with the autumn cold. Just seeing these creatures moving nimbly up and down their rocky environment is amazing, but when the loud crash of horn hitting horn echoes in the high valleys you feel transported to the Pleistocene. Life still follows its age old laws up there and we are privileged to witness it.
I will soon be sharing with you a video showing some of the majesty of the Spanish ibex in action. Meanwhile here is a page filled with my quick, humble attempts to grasp the essence of the ibex.