Machairodus pair: the intricacies behind a simple composition
One of the subjects I needed to depict for the Batallones exhibition was the sexual dimorphism in the Miocene sabertooth Machairodus aphanistus. In this species the males were considerably larger than the females, and the best way to reflect that fact was a simple illustration showing the relative sizes.
To illustrate the size dimorphism in Machairodus I just scaled up the same drawing to fit with the sizes of a very large (presumably male) and a very small (presumably female) adult individuals from Batallones 1 based on the measurements of their long bones (in this case the humerus)
But what would it be like to see a Machairodus couple in their environment? Would we see a striking difference as with modern lions or something more discreet as in leopards? In terms of its external appearance the lion is clearly the most dimorphic among living cat species, but surprisingly, in terms of body size the leopard is even more dimorphic. And yet, if you see an adult leopard out in the African bush, you may have a hard time trying to sex it unless the cat obligingly raises its tail. Some older female leopards can be so stocky and muscular that they would pass for a male, but then older male leopards often have very thick necks with a dewlap of loose skin hanging from their throats which make it easier to recognize them. Among tigers, the males not only are larger but they usually have a thick growth of long hair on the sides of their heads, a feature that is mirrored to some degree in other cat species.
What then about Machairodus? We have no evidence to infer a dramatic external feature like the lion male, not only because the lion is the outstanding exception among all living cats but because it is likely that the evolution of its mane has at least something to do with its similarly exceptional social structure. So for Machairodus I have inferred a similar coat for both sexes, although I have given a somewhat longer “beard” to the male. Also I have depicted the male yawning in order to show its large canines. After all, as in other cats, not only the male is larger than the female but it also has relatively larger canine teeth, and displaying them would be an important part of its body language.
Like other sabertooth cats, Machairodus had a somewhat longer and narrower skull than a modern cat of similar size. This difference would be partly masked in life by the thickness of soft tissue around the skull, but still it would be noticed, at least subtly.
In the final composition, the counterpoint to the shapes of the cats is provided by the fallen tree just behind the animals, but at one point I felt I needed one more, nearer plane in the picture. As an experiment I quickly added another fallen branch in the foreground, but I was not quite convinced by the effect
Was this the best option? Well, as in many other cases, I wouldn´t say for sure. I simply followed my instinct while trying to make choices within the limited time frame of this assignment. I had a large series of complex illustrations to do and a tight deadline, which, looking back, sometimes is a good thing. When you are a perfectionist of sorts, agonizing endlessly about your composition choices is a very real danger, so that limited time can be, ironically, the lesser of two evils!