Author Archives: chasingsabretooths

From sketch to painting: lighting

Leafing through folders with old drawings I found a few rough sketches for two paintings I intended to include in “The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives” (1997). Back in those days photo references were much harder to come by and I had to relay more heavily on my clay models, which I set in the pose of the planned painting and put under a lamp to mimic the desired lighting conditions.
During the late 1980s documentary viewers around the world were awed at the athletic feats of the tigers of Ranthambore, especially the formidable male nicknamed “Genghis”, who used to charge through the shallow water in pursuit of sambar deer. It was only natural that I wished to paint a similar scene with a different cast of characters, in particular the agile, tiger-sized sabertooth Machairodus catocopis and the strange ariodactyl Syndyoceras, bith form the late Miocene of North America.

In my earliest sketches for this scene I showed a different prey, Syntethoceras, which looked conveniently bizarre, but then I found that it apparently did not coexist with M. catocopis in the same fossil sites.

My next sketch already showed Syndyoceras in place, but I still did not explore the matter of lighting in much detail.

Then I finally took the time to model Machairodus in the desired pose and place the figurine under the lamp to see the play of light and shadow.

The final painting took me ages to finish and indeed it did not appear in “The Big Cats”. It would only be published in 2004 in “The National Geographic Book of Prehistoric Mammals”.

Another sensation for wildlife documentary lovers back in the 1980s was the revelation of the intimate life of the white wolves of Ellesmere island, then filmed and photographed for the first time. Those predators chased their prey, from hares to musk oxen, in the barren expanses of the high Arctic, and in my mind the connection was made with the lightly built Beringian sabertooths of the genus Homotherium. Paleontologist Bjorn Kurtén had hypothesized that those animals would be black to match the coat color of their main prey, the woolly mammoth, but I found at least as likely that they would be white to match the winter color of their environment, just like the arctic wolves.
So I set to paint a scene with white predator and white prey inspired in those breathtaking Ellesmere images. I wanted to show my subjects under the dramatic light of the low arctic sun, and once again I had to model my creatures in clay and light them. The horns of the Dall ram were especially complex objects and I would have been at a loss to paint them without the figurine.

In this sketch I set the creatures in the composition.

In this quick study I concentrated on showing light and shadow as discrete patches.

In this case the final painting did find its way to “The Big Cats”!.


Paris la nuit

In the late Eocene, some 50 million years ago, the area of the Paris basin was occupied by extensive tropical forests with an abundant, exotic mammalian fauna. Many species from that epoch were described by pioneering paleontologist Georges Cuvier, including Adapis, a member of the early primate family Adapidae. This small animal, weighting about 1 Kg, was an agile if relatively slow climber that sought fruits and tender leaves in the green canopy.

Here is my reconstruction of Adapis, based on cranial and postcranial fossils from the Paris basin.

But the peak of primate activity in the Eocene forests of the Paris basin probably took place during the night. When the adapids went to sleep with their bellies full of vegetable food, faster primates, members of the family Omomyidae, emerged from their resting places in search of a diversity of food, including living prey. Like modern tarsiers and galagos, they had short muzzles, huge forward-facing eyes, and long hindlimbs well adapted to leaping from branch to branch in pursuit of insects and other small creatures.

Here is my reconstruction of 3 species of nocturnal primates form the Paris basin. From left to right:
Necrolemur, Peudoloris and Microchoerus.

I prepared these reconstructions as part of a collection of illustrations for C.S. Larsen’s masterly textbook “Our Origins”, published by Norton and now in its successful fourth edition. Check it on Amazon:

Join our “Drawing the Big Cats” safari!

Spring has come and it is time to begin our preparations for this year’s edition of “Drawing the Big Cats”! It may seem like there is a lot of time left until late August, but a trip like this requires quite some planning ahead. After four editions of this amazing safari, there are countless memories of incredible encounters with the wildlife of Northern Botswana, but our 2015 trip stands as one of the most memorable, if nothing else because we could see the fishing leopard of Savuti in action! Here are some impressions from our feline encounters of that year:

If you want to learn more about this incredible trip contact Elephant Trails safaris at:

And if you want to picture yourself there, here is a summary of the itinerary to help boost your imagination:


This is an overland safari where we spend all our time in the remote wilderness of Botswana. During the game drives we will concentrate on watching the wildlife, and making photographs or videos is the priority especially during our encounters with the big cats which are usally brief and always unpredictable. However, on particular occasions we will be able to use our sketchbook and pencil for some live sketching. It will be during the lunch stop or back at camp that we will have our drawing classes and learn about the structure, shape and action of the felines and how to materialise it in our sketches. On some evenings we will also have presentations about big cat evolution, behaviour and adaptations, all of which will enrich our experience of the real animals in the wild.

Day 1.  Sedia Hotel – Maun
Arrive in Maun, the safari capital of Botswana, and overnight in the Sedia Hotel on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis. We take a scenic flight over the Oklavango Delta for a breathtaking vew of some of the wilderness that we will be visiting over the following days. For bird enthusiasts there is a chance to watch some of the most colourful local bird species up close at the hotel’s garden bird feeders.

Day 2 & 3. Xakanaxa – Moremi Game Reserve
We depart Maun and travel the 5-6 hour journey into the Moremi Game Reserve which is situated in the Okavango Delta. Here we will camp in a private campsite in the heart of the waterways of the Okavango Delta.
Day 2 takes us on a boat ride on the main channels and lagoon systems of the northern reaches of the Okavango Delta. There is a great variety of birdlife along these channels, and mammals such as the elusive otter and majestic lechwe may be seen. If we are lucky we may even see an elephant cooling off in the clear waters or catch a glimpse of the shy sitatunga.
We usually spend most of the day out so we will pack a picnic lunch to be enjoyed in a shady spot in this picturesque part of Moremi. In the evening we return to camp for warm shower and a hearty meal while listening to the sounds of the African bush at night. LDBB
Days’ 4 & 5. Khwai – Moremi Game Reserve
After enjoying our early morning breakfast and clearing our tents we start our journey to the Eastern most extremity of the Okavango Delta.
The Khwai area is rich in habitat and wildlife. The animals are attracted to the narrow ribbon of water that is the Khwai River and this provides for some spectacular wildlife viewing. This is an area where lion and leopard may be seen. There is a healthy population of plains game, including kudu, impala, giraffe and zebra.
Here we will spend our days doing game drives and also have a chance to relax and catch up with our diaries during the siesta time of the afternoon on day 5. LDBB
Days’  6 & 7. Savuti – Chobe National Park 
Today we have a 6 – 7 hour journey to Savuti- we will be travelling through wilderness area for the whole journey. This is a day that puts into perspective the sheer size of this wilderness area.
Savuti lies in an ancient lake bed that is punctuated with small rocky hills (kopjes), some of which hold ancient San rock paintings. Here we explore the Savuti marsh and river bed for the abundant wildlife of this timeless place, including its famous elephant and lion population. Wild dog are regularly seen as well as a large variety of other mammals.
Savuti is a favoured area of wildlife- photographers as well as film-makers and many well known wildlife documentaries have been filmed here.
Days  8 & 9. Chobe River Front – Chobe National Park 
Today’s journey takes us out of the ancient lake bed and Kalahari basin , through the teak forests that make up the north eastern part of Botswana.
For a long part of the journey we will follow in the footsteps of famous missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone. We pass through some villages that are recorded by him in his books about his travels. The Chobe river floodplain is undoubtedly one of the greatest wildlife areas on the continent and one is sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of animals. Here we divide our time between game drives along the river and in the forest and a boat cruise on the Chobe River which is one of the highlights of the trip. We will also have some time to do some curio shopping in the village of Kasane.

Day 10.  Victoria Falls
Today we leave our camp for the last time as we are transferred to Victoria Falls.
Here we will overnight in a comfortable hotel.
We will have time to spend a few hours at the world famous “Smoke that Thunders” or in the local Batonka language “Mosi Oa Tunya”.(The entry fee is the responsibility of guest) It is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world .
There are also optional activities including white water rafting, helicopter flights or even bungee jumping. The restaurant dinner that evening is the responsibility of the guest.

Deinotheres for lunch? A sabertooth’s tough-skinned diet

The early Pleistocene of Africa was a time when modern species of large mammals coexisted with others that are no longer with us, creating an exciting mosaic of animal diversity. Sabertooth cats like Homotherium were still at large, but many of the animals they preyed upon were of modern type, from horses to antelopes. But now and then they would come across an elephant-like creature that had long become extinct in Europe and Asia: Deinotherium.
Deinotheres are classified, like elephants, in the order proboscidea, but they belonged in a family of their own, the Deinotheriidae, which probably diverged from the lineage of elephants very early on.
Deinotheres had elephant-like body proportions but their tusks emerged from the mandible rather than from the maxilla, and they curved downwards.
If deinotheres had tight societies like those of modern elephants, it would be very hard for predators to catch a young individual -hard, but not impossible. Even lions manage to snatch a young elephant every now and then in spite of the adults’ almost constant vigilance.

Here is a detail of a scene showing adult homotheres bringing down a young Deinotherium bozasi somewhere in Eastern Africa

But once the elephantine prey was down, the advantage of the sabertooths over the lions would become evident. With their long, flattened and coarsely serrated upper canines homotheres would be able to pierce their prey’s though skin and even reach the blood vessels underneath. That would be good for the predators, who saved a lot of time, effort and risk, and merciful for the deinothere, who would die from massive blood loss in a couple of minutes. Lions hunting elephants, on the other hand, can take ages to finally kill their prey, who in some occasions is virtually and slowly eaten alive. Bloody as the sabertooth kill was, it would be, in a way, much cleaner than that of its modern relatives, at least when it came to thick-skinned prey.

Spying on the big cats: an ancestral occupation

Prey animals are often quite interested in their predators. If you have spent time in the African wilderness you may have seen how the antelopes seem to shadow a leopard that ventures out from cover. The herbivores apparently consider that the most dangerous predator is the one that you can’t see, so they always try to keep the big cats in sight.
For our own ancestors, curiosity about the predators was a more complex thing. The very earliest hominins were almost exclusively vegetarian so they fit the role of potential prey very well. Fascination for the big cats equaled fascination with danger, a danger you need to know in order to better avoid it.
But, just as modern chimpanzees now and then include some monkey in their diet, australopithecines were likely to have more than a passing interest in meat, and from that point on, the felids became even more interesting, as examples of an extremely efficient fellow predator.

Somewhere in a humid forest in Southern Africa, a hominid of the species Australopithecus africanus spies on a melanic specimen of the “false sabertooth” Dinofelis barlowi, feasting on its kudu kill

Then another big change happened in our hominin ancestors’ behavior. Not content with an ocassional taste of meat, they became regular scavengers, a development inseparable from their ability to shape the kind of stone tools that allowed them to deflesh and break the bones of animals. From that point on, sabertooth cats and other big predators became potential providers of fresh carcasses, and hominins needed to become ever more acquainted with the details of their behavior, not only in order to predict when and where to look for their kills, but also to avoid becoming new kills themselves during the process of stealing.

Perhaps it is not surprising that when modern humans developed the ability to create art, the first subject they turned their attention to were the big cats. Learning about the felines was a way to know nature (and human nature) in more depth. To this day, drawing the big cats is an unsurpassed way to grasp the secrets of what it means to be alive in this world. I for one never tire of it, and it is good to know that my passion has such a long pedigree. If I am a freak, at least I am in good company!

Reconstructing a monster bear

Several years ago I was approached by the BBC and asked to produce an accurate reconstruction of the giant short-faced bear, Arctodus simus, to be used by a team of 3D artists in order to create life-like animations of the animal. I had drawn Arctodus before but this project required a more in-depth approach, so I set to review all the available information about the anatomy and body proportions of this amazing ursid.
I consulted with paleontologist Paul Mattheus from the university of Alaska in Fairbanks who sent me his Phd thesis along with a wealth of data about the giant bear. With all those figures and measurements I put together a detailed reconstruction of the beast’s skeleton, based mostly on the nearly complete specimen from Fulton County in Indiana, but complemented with bits from other findings. One especially nice skull from Alaska allowed me a detailed restoration of the animal´s head.

In this collage you can see my drawings for the reconstruction of Arctodus simus, from a working sketch of the skeleton to a restoration of the animal’s musculature and soft-tissue outline and a detailed rendering of the head

The creature that emerged from those drawings was quite impressive. With especially long limb bones, it attained a shoulder height of 1.75 meters -while standing on all fours the animal’s eyes would be level to yours! The reconstructed head had a short face indeed, but on top of that the head looked relatively small for the animal’s massive body. Seen from the front, Arctodus also looked tall, narrow and small-headed relative to a modern brown bear.
The next step was to set the animal in motion. The relatively long limbs of Arctodus led some paleontologists to infer that it would be a good sprinter, a very active predator catching speedy prey on the run. But Mattheus’ analysis of the giant bear’s anatomy led him to a different conclusion: Arctodus would move around at moderate speeds with an efficient pace, with more endurance than speed, which in his view was an adaptation for covering huge distances in search of carrion that it would then appropriate using its huge bulk to expel other predators. In other words, the giant short-faced bear would have been a kleptoparasite. Even its great stature when standing on its hind legs would allow it to scan the horizon for any sign of a recent kill.

This second batch of sketches shows the pacing walk of Arctodus and the bipedal posture it would adopt now and then to scan its surroundings. Finally there is a full-color rendering of the living animal

Was that the real ecological niche of Arctodus? Well, if the dentition of an animal is our main guide to inferring its diet, then Arctodus was not a specialized scavenger, for one thing it didn´t nearly have the refined adaptations of a hyena for cracking bones. The teeth of Arctodus were, in spite of differences in detail, bear teeth, and that means a broad-spectrum diet. It could certainly steal kills from most predators around it, but it could also consume vegetable matter and kill its own prey now and then. Its wide distribution in North America indicates a considerable habitat tolerance, and probably a high degree of adaptability, but not enough to survive the wholesale extinction of large mammals at the end of the Pleistocene. As a result, now we need to resort to paleobiological reconstruction if we want to have a reasonable idea of what it looked like and how it behaved. Sad, but better than nothing!

Weird and Wonderful: Reconstructing Synthetoceras

Browsing old folders I came across a series of sketches I did several years ago during the preparation of my illustrations for the American Museum of Natural History exhibition “Extreme Mammals”. Among them there was a sequence of drawings showing the process of reconstruction of the American Miocene artiodactyl Synthetoceras tricornatus. I had painted this species before but in this assignment the animal would be shown in full detail so I wanted to double check all my information. One of the best sources was the sample from the fossil site of Love Bone Bed in Florida, and it served me as a reference to bring the animal back to life. I started by drawing all the known bones to scale in order to get an accurate representation of body proportions. I drew missing parts of the skeleton using a more completely known relative, Protoceras, as a model.

Here are the first stages of the reconstruction of Synthetoceras, starting with the assembling of the bones all drawn to scale according to published measurements, and continuing with soft tissue outline and external appearance.

Once the skeleton was assembled, I could proceed to draw the sof tissue outline of the living animal in side view, which gave me a clear idea of its proportions. With a shoulder height of nearly 90 cm, the animal was not especially impressive, and couldn´t rival a modern red deer, for instance, in linear dimensions. But its robust, stocky bones supported a heavy body and a male like the one depicted in this reconstruction could weight around 200 Kg.

The bizarre head appendages, sported only by the males, are the most characteristic feature of this species, and it was essential to depict them correctly. In order to give them depth and realism I needed to make sure that the shading was right, and to that end I sculpted a small clay model of the head, which I put under the kind of light I wanted to use for my reconstruction.

A side view is one of the most informative ways to depict an extinct mammal, but exhibit designers wanted something more dramatic in order to engage the public, so they asked me to show the walking animal in perspective, as shown in one of my preliminary drawings. But this was not judged engaging enough and they asked me to show the animal galloping.

Here is a second batch of images showing the clay model of the Synthetoceras skull and the various drawings that incorporate the lighting based on it. The animal was first shown walking but finally a more dynamic pose was chosen.

The final step in the reconstruction was to create a hypothetical coat color pattern. Again, the exhibit designers wanted something dramatic, so I borrowed patterns from a diversity of modern ruminants in order to create something that had a lively contrast but remained biologically sensible.


A Glimpse into an Eocene Lost world

Isn´t it amazing to think that 35 million years ago, long before the sabertooth cats (or any true cat for that matter) ever evolved, there was such a specialized sabertoothed carnivore as Hoplophoneus mentalis?. This creature was about the size of a large lynx but it specialized in taking prey larger than itself, which it killed by a devastatingly efficient bite to the throat. But rhino-sized animals like Megacerops, shown in the background, had nothing to fear from this cat-like predator.



At a first glance (and even at a second and third) the skull of Hoplophoneus mentalis is so similar to that of true sabertooth cats like Megantereon, which lived more than 30 million years later, that you would be excused for taking it for a real cat, even for a direct ancestor of such younger species. In fact, the best heads of paleontology were such deceived for many decades until the detailed study of obscure anatomical features, such as the structure of the ear region of the skull, revealed the true affinities of those cat-like carnivores, which are now classified in an independent family: the Nimravidae.

The late Eocene of North America, nimravids included, is one of the most amazing “Lost Worlds” discovered by paleontology. Read more about it in my book “Sabertooth”!

The 4-dimensional safari

Looking back at four years of our “Drawing the Big Cats” safari I am amazed at how much I have learned first-hand about the cats and their adaptations to their wild home -and I thought I knew something! That experience becomes a key ingredient to enrich my renderings of the felines, and my reconstructions of their fossil relatives and their lost world, not to mention the challenge to try and reflect those complexities with my limited abilities… But beyond those “practical” applications, I also get the impression that my life has grown in several dimensions: length, width, depth, height… and I suspect I am not alone in feeling that way!
Length, because each minute in the wilderness of Botswana seems to last so much more than it would do on an average day back at home. Our life lengthens each time we go there!
Width, because the endless horizons of the African savanna seem to create new room within the soul, to make our mind more spacious and free to roam wherever it will.
Depth, because the myriad sensations, both striking and subtle, that surround us while on safari, (especially when camping out in the bush), renew our senses and give us an intuition of a world where boredom is impossible and whose deep complexity we could not begin to comprehend in a lifetime.
And height, because there we are given a privilege of a true spiritual kind. Flying over the Okavango delta we know we are witnessing a miracle, not only because this giant oasis in the Kalahari sands is such an improbable phenomenon, but also because its preservation is a monument to the faith of many women and men who have fought hard to preserve this jewel for all of us. I get a renewed sense of awe both at wildlife and at that particular breed of people who can recognize what gives our life dignity, what makes us truly human, and are ready to devote themselves to protect it in a brave and selfless way.


After each trip we come back home with a treasure of memories, pictures, sketches… but perhaps the most important thing is less easy to define: we could call it a transformation. While out in the wild, we are reminded of (and submerged in) the things that matter in life: nature, art, good company. And we become more able to free ourselves from the many petty traps that ensnare us in everyday life. If I picture myself back in Savuti, looking up at the star-filled sky after the campfire is no more than cooling embers, then, strangely enough, everyday problems appear more manageable. Have you felt the same way? Well, no magic tricks here, just pure life force of a kind we can only get in the place that made us human: the African savanna, the Cradle of Human Kind. I cannot wait to go back!

Legends of the Flores “Hobbits”

A couple of years ago a TV producer asked me to create a few reconstructions of Homo floresiensis, popularly known as the “hobbit of Flores island” for a documentary film. They wanted the images to be grounded on scientific fact, but quite especially they wanted them to be dramatic and striking.

The first image depicts an imaginary conflict between a band of “hobbits” and several Komodo dragons. The producers asked me to show the very biggest dragons that could exist, in order to remark the contrast with the tiny, 3-feet tall hominins

The second image shows the hobbits spending time up in the jungle canopy, in relation with the climbing ability suggested by some details of their osteology

Of course it is possible that such “climbing” adapations are just primitive features retained by H. floresiensis from its distant ancestors, but at any rate the right question to ask is probably why would they spend any substantial time up in the branches? Escaping a hungry giant varanid would be one occasional reason, but anatomically modern humans (giants to the hobbits’ eyes), which invaded the island at some point, could be another motivation to seek refuge up in the trees.

The third image shows a band of hobbits hunting one of the dwarf proboscideans that inhabited Flores in the Pleistocene

Although the elephant-like creatures were very small in comparison with their relatives from the continent, their hunters were similarly tiny, so this lilliputian confrontation implied a considerable risk of injury.

All in all, making this set of illustrations was a very interesting experience. When creating scenes from the distant past I tend to be rather conservative and choose the kind of interactions that are most likely to have taken place. But in this ocassion, the pressure from the client to create more dramatic, risky scenes took me to some exciting new grounds.