Predators, Dreams, and Extinctions
I remember well the first excavations at the fossil site of Batallones-1, over a quarter of a century ago. After some teeth of the saber-tooth cat Promegantereon appeared at the site it seemed likely that, for the first time ever, a complete skull of the mysterious animal could be found. Back then, that possibility excited me so much that one night I even dreamed that we had discovered such a fossil and that I held the skull admiringly in my hands, as we drove to take it to the Madrid museum…
Reality fulfilled my dream and surpassed it by far. Today, we have so many complete skulls of Promegantereon from Batallones that they won’t fit on a large laboratory table. The sample of fossils from this site complex not only has provided complete skeletons of species that previously were known only from a few scraps, but it has yielded the remains of several species completely new to science. Dozens of academic papers and several Phd dissertations derived from the study of the sites have largely rewritten the history of the evolution of carnivorans and saber-tooth cats in particular.
These days there is a large exhibition celebrating the scientific success of the Batallones excavations. Some of the most amazing fossils that you can imagine are shown together in the hall of the Museo Arqueológico Regional de Madrid, in Alcalá de Henares. I have had the privilege to create a large series of illustrations updating the way we see the animals and environments of Madrid province some 9 million years ago.
In a way, this exhibition is another dream come true. My favorite beasts, the saber-tooth cats, have achieved center stage together with an amazing array of fossil carnivorans and other vertebrates. I am thrilled to think that many children will be exposed to the wonders of paleontology, as I was almost half a century ago when my imagination was set aflame by seeing a reconstruction of saber-tooth cats in their world painted by master paleo-artist Rudolph Zallinger.
But fossils are only half the story here. The fascination of saber-tooths derives from their combination of the strange and the familiar. Monstrous as they may appear to some, they were, after all, big cats. So, it is the modern big cats that have, so to speak, provided the flesh with which I have dressed the dry skeletons of their extinct relatives. As a child I dreamed of studying the fossils of saber-tooths but also of watching the big cats in the wild and learning about them first-hand. Those are dreams that I have fulfilled, and I am happy that I had the choice to pursue them. The fossils were there in the museums and in the sediments, and the living predators were there out in the wild. I could have settled to just learning about them through the pages of books (and later, computer screens), but I had the chance to go out and experience the real thing. But now I am worried about the options available to the children that will visit this exhibition.
I don’t know what are the chances that children now in school will be eventually able to pursue a career in paleontology (in Spain the prospect is already grim today), but their chances of seeing large carnivores in the wild a few years from now are deteriorating fast. To think that the last generation to enjoy the privileges we had regarding the observation of wildlife may be already alive is a sad but possible perspective. To experience an environment where big predators still rule is to renew our connection with the kind of world we are evolutionarily “designed” to live in, and to lose that connection is to enter an era of madness, a time of vicarious fulfillment of frustrated needs. And yet now we face a new variety of cynicism among some scientists, who claim that there is no point in lamenting extinctions because they have been happening for many millions of years and people eventually get used to everything, so after a while lost species will no longer be missed. A philosophy that contemplates without a tremor to deprive the next generations of the experiences that have enriched our own lives is the most depressing consequence of a world view that sees human life as little more than a balance between ingestion and excretion. Such views reveal the impoverished sensibilities of those scientists -or their will to downplay losses as a way to skip the fight to prevent them.
Now as you look to the assembly of magnificent carnivorans from the Miocene of Batallones, just imagine your grandchildren facing a similar illustration, but showing the lion, leopard, wolf, lynx, polar bear… by then completely extinct in the wild. Imagine the desolation of knowing that there is nowhere in the world where lions or tigers reign as sabertooths reigned in the distant past. Today those places still exist but if one day they disappear it will be, at least in part, because of our own idleness. Just by having a clear opinion and making it heard, or through our vote, we can make a difference. But trying to convince ourselves that extinction doesn´t matter is perhaps the ultimate sign of cowardice, and thinking that future generations will not be aware enough of their loss to reproach us is the farthest thing from a consolation. We need the fossils in the museums and the living predators out in the wild. Each thing in its place!