Search Results for Barbourofelis

Lessons from feline violence

Out in the wild, the big cats spend most of their time just resting, and it is only on rare occasions that one gets a glimpse of their full potential for explosive action. And yet it is those brief moments that their whole structure is designed for. When I sit at my drawing table conceiving an action scene, as in the case of my illustration of two fighting Barbourofelis, I try to get all the details of the action right, and I use my memory and all the reference material available to represent the conflict taking place.

This reconstruction of two Barbourofelis fighting over a kill was an attempt to portray sudden action

But last summer in Botswana we had a totally unexpected opportunity to see what a big cat fight really looks like. I referred to that episode in a previous post, but there is so much more about those amazing moments. One amazing aspect which unfortunately you cannot show in a painting is sound: the animals are impressively loud, and you don’t just hear the sound, it really gets to your guts. Another important factor is speed (it all happened in less than 5 seconds) but that is also impossible to show in a static image, even if it can be implied. There is a lot of other elements that can indeed be represented through drawing and painting, and they take a good deal of study to comprehend. It is a good thing that we can bring back our pictures and videos in order to elaborate an experience that struck us like lightning and will stay with us while we live.

Here is a picture showing one particular moment of the lioness’ hair-rising charge on the male

And here is a sketch showing a detail of this same conflict
furious lioness 7

Watch this video showing a few of the many highlights of our trip:

Was this the most extreme sabertooth ever?

The American Pleistocene genus Smilodon is probably the most famous sabertooth, and it certainly was the largest, and one of the most spectacular. It also was the last of its lineage, only becoming extinct after modern humans reached the Americas. But, was it the most extreme form of sabertooth ever to exist? Well, in terms of the anatomical adaptations for the sabertooth hunting and killing method, I think it wasn´t.

I would propose several candidates for the title of the most extreme sabertooth, including species of the genera Thylacosmilus (a metatherian), Eumilus (a nimravid) and Barbourofelis (a barbourofelid). Among these, Barbourofelis fricki, from the late Miocene of North America, combines large body size (although certainly smaller than Smilodon) with proportionally huge upper canines, together with a skull that has undergone a more radical transformation than that of any placental sabertooth, and body proportions that reflect enormous muscular power and the ability to wrestle down large prey and keep it completely immobilized while the predator executed its very specialized and precise killing bite.

Here you can see several preliminary sketches and the finished reconstruction of the head of Barbourolefis fricki. It took me several attempts to choose the angle of view and the lighting which best showed the unique porportions of this animal’s head
barbourofelis head collage baja b

Here is a full body reconstruction of Barbourofelis fricki. Notice its stocky proportions, with short and extremely muscular limbs
Barbourofelis fricki full body 2015

If you think that other sabertooths were more specialized you could be right at least in part, because the skull of Thylacosmilus, with its ever-growing sabers,was even more weird-looking, while Smilodon populator had the most massive sabres ever and would have taken the lergest prey of any sabertooth in the whole Cenozoic. But in terms of the total set of adaptations that it displayed, Barbourofelis fricki certainly pushed the envelope, and if we could see it in action we would witness the ultimate lesson in sabertooth hunting style. Frustratingly, we will have to rely on our studies of functional anatomy to have any idea of how these amazing predators dealt with their prey. But learning more and more about them is also a lot of fun!

If you want to know much more about these creatures, check my award-winning book “Sabertooth”!

Sabertooth and prey: selecting a frame from the action.

When preparing to represent a scene from the distant past, we sometimes wish we could just travel back in time and make a photo. In reality, our working process improves if we mentally recreate some of the background story for the imaginary “snapshot” we are going to take.
Having the “big picture” in our mind gives more meaning to each pencil stroke. Let us take as an example the scene from the American Miocene showing a conflict between two adult Barbourofelis fricki, from my latest book “Sabertooth”. One sabertooth defends the Syntethoceras carcass from the other, but what had happened before?
Functional anatomy indicates that these animals would only rarely scavenge, and would hunt most of their food. But, did the two predators kill the prey together, or is one of them challenging the rightful hunter? As discussed elsewhere, there is evidence to suggest that subadult Barbourofelis may have helped their mothers to catch really big prey, but it is most likely that adult individuals would hunt on their own. So, in our picture only one “cat” did the killing.

In this fragment of an oil painting depicting the Miocene environments of Love Bone Bed, Florida, we see some large Barbourofelis cubs trying to help their mother to bring down a rhinoceros.
barbourofelis at Love-Bone-bed baja

For a single adult sabertooth, catching agile prey such as Syntethoceras would require a lot of patience, precision, and more than a bit of luck. Imagine then its rage if another sabertooth appears and wants to take the fruit of its efforts! The outcome of the conflict would depend on the differences in size, and on how starved each contestant was…

This sequence of events had been in my mind for a few years, and now and then I would take a few minutes to sketch this or that part of the story. Here are some quick drawings of the capture process:
collage persec y captura-baja

One version of the fight (minus the carcass) became the cover of some editions of our book on Prehistoric Mammals:
BarbourofelisFricki fight1

When the book “Sabertooth” started to take shape, I found I needed an illustration of a conflict around a carcass, so I decided to ellaborate on that part of the sequence. Here are some of the sketches:
fight sketch-2 baja

fight sketch-3 baja

fight sketch-5-background baja

Want to see a glimpse of the process of the making of the digital color painting? Watch this short clip of the film “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life” on YouTube:

Want to learn much more about the whole process of reconstruction, from the excavation of sabertooth fossils to the final touches of illustrations? Download the full 35 -minute film from our store at Wild World Visuals:

Rusinga: primate paradise in the African Miocene… and more!

Among the new illustrations that I prepared for the 3d edition of “Our Origins” there is a scene showing several primate species that lived in what is now Rusing Island, Kenya, during the early Miocene.
Rusinga is a small island at the Northeastern corner of Lake Victoria in Kenya, but some 17 million years ago the area corresponded to an alluvial floodplain. The vegetation was rather open in the plains, but there were dense gallery woods along the water margins. That combination of environments provided excellent habitat for many species of primates, including 2 species of the genus Proconsul, as well as Dendropithecus and Limnopithecus.

Here is the Rusinga scene with the various early Miocene primates, including Proconsul nyanzae (foreground), Proconsul africanus (top left), Dendropithecus (top right), and Limnopithecus (center right).


While the primate fossils, and especially those of Proconsul, have made Rusinga a familiar word among paleontologists, the site has yielded fossils of many more mammal species, from tiny flying squirrels to ponderous anthracotheres, looking somewhat like a cross between a pig and a hippo…

A scene in the early Miocene of Rusinga, with flying squirrels (Paranomalurus), a chalicothere (Chalicotherium) and two anthracotheres (Masritherium)

Rusinga fauna

Were there sabertooths in Rusinga to trouble the lives of our early relatives? There were indeed, although they were not as impressive as one might expect. Afrosmilus was an early member of the family Barbourofelidae, but with the approximate size of a lynx, it was much smaller than its later relatives from the late Miocene of Eurasia and North america, such as Barbourofelis. Also, its canines were only slightly enlarged, but often it is in such modest animals that the potential for future specialization is to be found.
So, this sabertooth was hardly the dominat predator in the Rusinga environment. That privilege did not even correspond to a member of the order Carnivora, but rather to a creodont, a survivor of an ancient lineage of predatory mammals which flourished in the early part of the Tertiary, and by the Miocene were extinct in most of their former range. But in Africa they not only survived, but they reached truly enormous size. Hyainailouros, the giant creodont from Rusinga, would have weighted as much as a modern lion, but like other members of the family Hyaenodontidae (the “dog-like creodonts”) it had a disproportionately large skull for its body size. This means that the jaws of this beast, armed with teeth suited for tearing meat and crushing bone, could easily turn a limb apart from a human like you or me with a single devastating bite.

Meet Hyainailouros, the giant creodont from Rusinga.


So, we can only imagine how nightmarish the apparition of Hyainailouros would be for our early relatives from Rusinga. Small wonder that all these primates displayed excellent climbing abilities, because the treetops were the one place were Hyainailouros could not follow them. Like all hyaenodontinds, these predators had limbs specialized for locomotion on the ground, almost like those of an ungulate. But the more modest, cat-like Afrosmilus probably did not have that limitation. So it is possible that, after all, the Rusinga primates had more to fear from the unprepossessing early sabertooth than from the monstrous creodont…

Sabertooth diaries 6: time to play with clay!

Reconstructing sabertooths is a very demanding task, but it is also a lot of fun: in fact sometimes it can look a lot like childplay, and never so much as when you are making scale models in clay for reference. I have made a lot of models of skulls and heads of sabertooths and of their prey animals so that I can see how the heads would look in different angles and under different light conditions. These days when I need an absolutely accurate 3D reference I model the objects directly in the computer, but for a more spontaneous (even crude) approach there is nothing like the good old clay -and honestly, it remains a much more fun and relaxing thing to do!

Now, a few examples:

1.- Here is a skull of Homotherium based in several specimens form Incarcal in Spain. At some 12 cm. long, this is conveniently toy-like sized, like the rest of the models here.






2.- Here is the skull of the marsupial Thylacosmilus, with some of its soft tissues in place (concretely, it has the masseter and temporalis muscles, the nasal cartilage, the whisker pad and the orbiculars of the mouth.





3.- Here is the skull of Barbourofelis fricki




4.- Even more bizarre: the skull of the gorgonopsian Rubidgea:




5.- And yet another gorgon, this time it is Inostrancevia, andI have put some soft tissue on it…





6.- If sabertooths look strange, some of their prey can be stranger still. Here is the skull of one of Inostracevia‘s potential prey: Scutosaurus.





7.- And here is the skull (with some soft tissue on it) of an animal that was neither a sabertooth nor a very likely prey, but rather a potential competitor for the carcasses of the predators’ victims: the entelodontid Entelodon. These animals are called “killer pigs” by some, and looking at their heads one gets an idea that the name might just be appropriate…


Sabertooth Diaries 5: concepts you will not see in the book

When you start working in a book like “Sabertooth” you see it as a sort of limitless box where you will be able to put all your ideas on the subject matter. But as the project takes shape (and especially when the deadlines begin to loom in the horizon), you realize that many of your concepts will not find a place in the finished book. In fact, you may realize that MOST of your ideas will be left out!

In my case, a good many concepts never went beyond the stage of a crude pencil sketch. It doesn’t mean they won’t go beyond that stage: I expect to find them a home in some future projects, and it is my experience that a sketch may find its opportunity many years after its initial inception.  Many of the illustrations that you will see in “Sabertooth” derive from discarded sketches originally intended for “The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives” or other projects from the last years.

Now let me share with you a few of those concepts that didn’t make it to the book. Between them they span almost 20 years in total, but at some point I seriously considered to make each of them into a finished piece for the book.

1.-Here is a violent scene showing Barbourofelis as it gets ready to dispatch a hapless Syntethoceras.

Barbourofelis and prey

2.-Here is a quick study of Megantereon leaping from behind some branches in pursuit of some unseen prey animal.


3.- Some more violence here: a scene based on the famous fossil skull of Nimravus with a wound apparently inflicted by the saber of a bad-tempered Eusmilus. I had to manipulate clay models of both skulls in my hands until I managed to position the saber of Eusmilus in the right angle to inflict a wound like the one seen in the fossil. And then the difficult part was to arrange the rest of the bodies of both animals (at least the front part of them) to fit with the relative positions of their skulls.

Eusmilus bites nimravus

4.-Finally, here is a scene with a pair of Smilodon emerging from among the branches of a fallen tree as they stalk their prey.

Smilodon pair stalk

New monograph about classic Miocene sabertooth site

When I was a young boy looking for any information about sabertooths, I came across the name Sansanosmilus a couple of times. It took me some time to find a publication where this exotic-sounding creature was at all figured, and then all I found was an outline drawing of a skull, not especially impressive by the way, with rather smallish upper canines. Many years later I finally got access to a monograph by French paleontologist Leonard Ginsburg, where the fossil remains of this Miocene sabertooth from France were described and figured.  I discovered that, in spite of its moderate “sabers”, this leopard-sized carnivore was a serious predator, with robust, strong limbs, and a very sophisticated skull. In fact, its adaptations for the specialized killing bite tyipical of sabertooths went beyond those seen in more spectacular sabertooth species that lived millions of years later. This animal was also an evolutionary “grandparent” of the genus Barbourofelis, which inlcuded some of the most powerful and bizarre sabertooths of the American Miocene.

Later on, I had the privilege to meet Leonard Ginsburg himself, who provided me with unpublished photographs and other  information about Sansanosmilus.  All that material allowed me to attempt a life reconstruction of the animal under Leonard’s advice, which resulted in a picture of a strange and stocky predator, only vaguely cat-like.

Around those years Leonard undertook the task of editing a huge monograph that would put together the knowledge ammased after many decades of excavations of the amazing fossil site that gave its name to that strange little sabertooth: Sansan. The first volume, dealing with the history and geology of the site, and the fossil record of plants, invertebrates and non-mammalian vertebrates was published in 2000. But the volume most dear to Leonard, the one dealing with the mammalian fossils, proved more complicated to put together, and he sadly passed away before the task was complete.

More recently, my friend the French paleontologist Stephane Peigné teamed up with Sevket Sen to finish the work that Ginsburg had started all those years ago, and now the monograph is finally completed and ready for publication. It also has given me the opportunity to create an updated anatomical reconstruction of Sansanosmilus, which appears in the cover of the upcoming volume.

The volume is published by the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle of Paris and will be available as a hardback book and DVD/ROM version.

Sansan monograph cover

Reconstruction of the sabertooth Sansanosmilus palmidens, cover for the Sansan fossil mammal monograph.