Search Results for megantereon
One of the most striking fossil finds of the “false sabretooth” Dinofelis was made at Bolt´s Farm, in the Sterkfontein valley of South Africa. There, the remains of three cats were found together with those of about a dozen baboons. This discovery contributed to the legend of Dinofelis as an specialist primate killer, but was it?
At other cave sites from the Sterkfontein valley, the remains of Dinofelis are often found not far from those of our hominid relatives, an association which led the paleontologist C.K. Brain to suggest that Dinofelis was probably sharing the caves with the hominids and taking advantage of their proximity to feast on their flesh with alarming frequency.
The idea that Dinofelis was some kind of Nemesis for our early ancestors has a strange fascination, which was brilliantly put in words by Bruce Chatwick in his book “The Songlines”. He writes: “Could it be, one is tempted to ask, that Dinofelis was Our Beast? A Beast set aside from all the other Avatars of Hell? The Arch-Enemy who stalked us, stealthily and cunningly, wherever we went? But whom, in the end, we got the better of? Coleridge once jotted in a notebook, ‘The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman.’ What is so beguiling about a specialist predator is the idea of an intimacy with the Beast! For if, originally, there was one particular Beast, would we not want to fascinate him as he fascinated us? Would we not want to charm him, as the angels charmed the lions in Daniel’s cell?”
Haunting ad these ideas may be, scientific evidence suggests that Dinofelis, like any big cat of its size, would get the bulk of its food from those huge protein factories that are ungulate herds. Antelopes, pigs and horses make up a much larger proportion of the available biomass than primates, and usually are less tricky to catch. We use to think of our hominid relatives as easy prey, but that is largely a myth. Justy like chimps or gorillas, early hominins were strong creatures living in groups, and would likely use sticks and stones to good advantage during any conflict. Unless it caught an isolated, wounded or ill individual, a solitary cat like Dinofelis could have a very hard time trying to procure a hominid meal.
Dinofelis barlowi feasting on an australopithecine, while jackals await their turn to scavenge. Occasional as the killling of a hominid could be, it would make a deep impression on the victim´s surviving mates, and they would certainly feel deep fear for the predator.
But that doesn´t mean it wouldn´t take one of our ancestors now and then. For one thing, it was a more adaptable cat than the more specialized sabretooths such as Megantereon or Homotherium, almost obligate hunters of large ungulates. As climatic oscillations made the forests spread and contract during the Pleistocene, Dinofelis would find it easier to adapt than those other machairodonts. Given its body proportions and size, it may have lived not only in savannahs and woodlands, but also in deep forest like modern leopards and jaguars do. In that case it would find a suitable home in the jungles while the extreme sabretooths were cornered in shrinking savannahs, and its fossil record would only show a small fragment of its past distribution.
In a time when the huge Homotherium and early forms of the lion roamed the African woodlands, Dinofelis could not claim to be the King of the beasts, but it was a worthy Prince, and it apparently survived the more specialized sabretooths in Africa by millennia.
Like leopards or jaguars, it is possible that some populations of Dinofelis living in forests would develop melanistic forms. So, although depicting it as the “Prince of darkness” seems a bit exagerated in the light of avalable evidence, it might as well have been a dark prince. And a most impressive one!.
The Transvaal Caves in South Africa, popularly known as “The Cradle of Humankind”, are justly famous as the source of some of the most important hominin fossils in existence, but they have also yielded a few remarkable fossils of sabretooths. One of these is the holotype skull of Dinofelis piveteaui. This beautiful fossil, found at the cave of Kromdraai, was described as early as 1955 by Rosalie Ewer, and she already noted its marked sabretooth features: the dentition included a pair of flattened, flesh-piercing uper canines, an impressive row of enlarged incisors, and huge, blade-like carnassials for processing meat with enormous efficiency. Coupled with a specialized mastoid zone for insertion of powerful neck muscles, these adaptations allowed D. piveteaui to dispatch large prey with a proper sabretooth killing bite, causing massive blood loss and a quick death.
Several years ago I had the privilege to study that magnificent fossil at the Transvaal Museum, and my first impression was contradictory: all the sabre-tooth adaptations were there to be clearly seen, but the nice preservation of the Kromdraai skull shows something else: in spite of these “machairodontine” adpatations, the general morphology of the skull was remarkably feline: The muzzle was short (due in large part to the short diastemata, or empty spaces between the canines and premolar teeth), the cranium was broad across the zygomatic arches, the orbits were large and forward-looking and the dorsal outline of the skull was gently convex.
All in all, the geometry of this animal’s skull resembled that of a jaguar more than that of a “classic” sabretooth like Megantereon or Homotherium, with their long muzzles, narrow faces and straight dorsal outlines.Also, and in spite of their flattened shape, the upper canines were so short that barely the very tips, if anything, would show when the cat closed its mouth (as in the case of the clouded leopard, which has longer canines than any other modern cat and still they are mostly hidden by the upper lips).
One consequence of this conservative, feline geometry of the skull, is that the life appearance of the head of D. piveteaui would also be quite cat-like, especially when seen from the front. When relaxed, its warm and fuzzy look would barely let us imagine what a killing machine we had in front of us.
If we could see the animal baring its teeth during a fight with a rival cat, or with a bloody muzzle while dispatching its victim, we would get a more balanced view of the so-called false sabretooth. But that is a different story…
I find it a bit annoying when any kind of animals are given the name “false-something”. It is as if such animals were somehow inferior or secondary to the “true” or “original” ones. Such an unfair treatment has been given to a group of sabretooth cats often called “false sabretooths”, and more properly known as the metailurins (technically a tribe within the felid subfamily machairodontinae). Among the metailurins, the genus Dinofelis was the latest to evolve, and they are most often referred to with that offending common name.
But there is nothing false about Dinofelis. As far as we know, these animals, like all metailurins, were true members of the subfamily Machairodontinae -that is, they were proper sabretooth cats. Back in the late Miocene, when no member of the feline subfamily had as yet grown any larger than a lynx, metailurins had reached full cougar size, and they had also evolved the flattened upper canines and enlarged carnassial teeth that are the hallmarks of machairodonts. Over the millions of years they gave rise to Dinofelis, which grew to full jaguar size, and the last species, called Dinofelis piveteaui, developed remarkably flattened sabres, huge carnassials, a set of protruding, impressive incisors, and a specialized mastoid area in the skull for the insertion of powerful neck muscles that aided in the specialized type of killing bite shared by all sabretooths.
In Eurasia, Dinofelis was the dominant big cat in the early Pliocene, when the climate was warm and humid and huge forests covered much of the continent, but the more open environments of the late Pliocene onwards gave the advantage to more specialized sabretooth cats: Megantereon and Homotherium.
In Africa, however, Dinofelis managed not only to stand its ground in the face of the other sabretooth cats, it actually thrived and evolved into a diversity of species. In fact, Dinofelis appears to have survived in that continent until a later date than the other machairodontines.
One of the key advantages of Dinofelis was the fact that, being less specialized than Homotherium or Megantereon, it was more flexible and better able to cope with changes in environmental conditions and prey availability. Even the relatively specialized Dinofelis piveteaui was a “jack of all trades” compared to its more extreme neighbours. It was larger than Megantereon and thus more powerful, but at the same time it retained better climbing capabilities than Homotherium. It could retreat into forests and survive on smaller prey, because its relatively short upper canines were less prone to breakage when hitting bone than in the case of the “classic” sabretooths.
So, rather than a “false sabretooth” what we see in Dinofelis is a true survivor.
Here we see Dinofelis piveteaui walking casually in a savannah envoronment, under the careful monitoring of a few horses. But, judging from its body proportions, this animal would be equally at home in the gallery woodlands and even in relatively dense forests.
There were other species of Dinofelis which evolved in a somewhat different direction, developing less “sabretoothed” dentitions than other metailurins and actually resembling our pantherine cats to a remarkable degree. We will look at those fascinating animals in upcoming posts.
If you want to know more about the metailurins, their diversity, and how they fit in the world of sabretooths, get my book, “Sabertooth”!
In my previous post I commented on how it could take you months to make sense of what you observed during just a few days out in the African bush. Well, that was an understatement. It can be years before something you saw in the wild finally seems to click in your “scheme of things”. Or may be it is just that I am a slow learner.
A few years ago I was awed to watch a cheetah killing a gezelle in the Ndutu area of Tanzania. I had seen this drama many times in documentaries, but seeing it in front of my eyes not only was breathtaking: it confirmed the strange sensation that these cats are a bit awkward about handling their prey. Of course there was nothing awkward about the way this amazing cheetah mother caught the gazelle in the blink of an eye, dispatched it in a few minutes, and provided a most welcome meal for its hungry cubs. And yet…
Back home I compared the footage of the cheetah kill with that of a leopard kill I had witnessed the previous year in Samburu reserve, Kenya. Still something felt un-catlike in the way the cheetah killed, but what could it be? In fact, the cheetah’s killing bite is extremely efficient and takes the adaptation of felines for strength and precision one step further. A short muzzle and extremely powerful jaw-closing muscles imply that the cat can sustain its bite for many minutes until the prey dies of asphyxiation. Actually the leopard kill I saw was less orthodox in that the cat was biting at the muzzle, not the throat of its prey. And yet…
More recently I went through the footage again, and suddenly I realized what was bothering me. The way the cheetah was holding its prey made it look like it didn´t know what to do with its paws. In fact it was just resting its front paws on top of the prey, much as a dog will do when possessively chewing a large bone. In contrast, the leopard I filmed at Samburu held its prey’s head firmly between its paws, a fitting embrace for such a “kiss of death”. Actually, this difference made a lot of sense from an anatomical point of view -and gives me further insights into sabretooth behaviour.
“What do sabretooths have to do with this?”, you may ask. Let me explain. The key difference between the cheetah and the other big cats in terms of how they handle their prey is the morphology of their forelimb bones, especially the elbow and wrist. A few million years ago, the cheetah’s ancestors had paws more like those of a leopard or a cougar. But as the cheetah lineage became more adapted for speed, the elbow lost part of its ability to rotate the forearm, and the wrist and hand became more narrow and less flexible. The forelimb of the cheetah was becoming better adapted to move exclusively in the vertical plane, while losing extra weight in the form of muscles that rotate the paw… in other words, it was becoming more similar to that of a dog than to that of its own feline relatives. As a result, the cheetah can’t use its paws as efficiently as the leopard for holding its prey during the killing bite. That is one more reason why the cheetah sticks to relatively small prey. And that is one reason why the cheetah is a much poorer climber than the leopard is!
Concerning the sabretooths, there was also a diversity of forelimb morphologies among them. Robust smilodontins like Smilodon or Megantereon had powerful and well-muscled fore-paws with fearsome retractable claws, well able to rotate in any direction and to hold large prey immobilized in any position. But members of the genus Homotherium had lost part of those adaptations in order to become more efficient runners. The wrist of Homotherium was much narrower than those of smilodontins, more restricted to rotation in the vertical plane, and its claws were smaller and less fully retractable, except for the huge dewclaw -something not unlike what we see in the cheetah.
Of course Homotherium was no cheetah. It was a lion-sized sabretooth cat with enormously strong forelimbs, whose mere body weight could help it control prey animals the size of a horse. But still the way it handled its prey would be somehow different to how the hyperrobust Smilodon did. Careful observation of the behaviour of modern big cats can still throw new light on how to reconstruct their extinct relatives.
This might seem like a trivial question, but it is not. Just a few years ago, some scientists were so puzzled by the differences between the skulls of sabertooth cats and those of their modern relatives, that they questioned even their most elementary activities. Looking at the sabertooths’ enormous upper canines, some experts thought that such teeth would “get in the way” of any food items that the cat would attempt to bite, unlike in modern big cats which, they thought, can easily open their mouths wide enough to get a big clearance between canine tips for large meat pieces to pass. As a solution, they proposed that the external mouth opening of sabertooths would be much longer than in modern cats, reaching very far back and thus allowing the animal to acquire food through the side of its mouth. Incidentally, this hypothesis resulted in some really ugly reconstructions being produced. But, was such a solution really neccesary?
One thing that hypothesis made clear was the fact that its authors had never obseerved a modern big cat eating from a carcass. A domestic cat eating from its dish does get food into its mouth more or less frontally, but a lion eating from a carcass bites directly with the side of its mouth, cutting skin and flesh with its carnassials. Alternatively it may bite meat off the carcass with its incisors, but in either case, claearance of canine tips is not neccesary, and it does not indeed happen because the gapes used during feeding are usually so small that, even with the modern cat’s relatively short canines, there is little or no actual separation. And on top of that simple evidence there is another: in terms of food acquisition, it would be useless for the sabertooths to have longer mouth openings, because even if the lips receeded far behind their position in modern cats, then it would be the masseter muscle (whose position we know well thanks to the shape of the attachment areas on the skull and mandible) that would get in the way of the desired food item!
Conclusion: sabertooth cats could eat perfectly well from carcasses with a mouth opening essentially similar to that of modern cats. But I always prefer visual proof rather than, or on top of, theoretical one. So, in order to reconstruct the sabertooth Megantereon eating from its prey, I used my computer 3D model of the skull as a basis to trace the soft tissue of the cat as it applies its carnassial bite to its prey’s ribcage.
I used my own video footage of a wild lion eating a wildebeest in Masai Mara as a basis to establish the posture of the sabertooth relative to the carcass, and made sure that the morphology of the sabertooth skull was compatible with this activity, which it evidently was. Incidentally, the video shows that while the lion was eating, at no time was the gape of its jaws large enough to allow more than a few milimeters’ clearance between its canine tips. The old theory about sabertooth eating methods needs not disturb my sleep any more. I really like it when the pieces fit so nicely!
Here you can see the lion that inspired my reconstruction, at the moment when the gape of its jaws is greatest. Notice that there is only a few milimeters’ clearance between canine tips -not precisely leaving much room for food items to cross.
To learn much more about how the sabertooths’ anatomical “machinery” worked, read chapter 4 of my book “Sabertooth”.
And to see some revealing video footage of sabertooths and modern cats (including the lion that served as a basis for this reconstruction), get the complete video “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life!
Have you taken a look at my Youtube channel recently? I have just decided to follow Youtube’s suggestion and create an introductory video for new viewers. Hopefully it will convince you to suscribe if you haven’t yet! Here is the link:
I recently had the luck to watch the endangered spanish brown bear in the wild, and this experience has made me think a little about the evolution and adaptation of bears, and their coexistence with sabertooths.
Bears and sabertooth cats have been living side by side for many million years. A very early example is the amazing fossil site complex of Cerro Batallones in Madrid. Batallones is a hill where several fossil sites of similar age have been found, and each of these sites is what remains of a cavity which acted as a natural trap during the late Miocene, some 10 million years ago. At one of those sites, called Batallones 3, the remains of many sabertooth cats of 2 different species (Promegantereon ogygia and Machairodus aphanistus) have been found, together with those of several other carnivore species, including a large bear: Indarctos arctoides.
For some reason, the bear is completely absent in other sites such as Batallones 1. But in Batallones 3 it is pretty abundant, and it seems that, like the other carnivores at the site, it came here to scavenge on the remains of other victims of the trap. Meat is such a magnet for carnivores that it attracts species with very different diets, and not only the kind of animals that today we know as scavengers. Large hyenas with dentitions adapted to bone cracking, such as the ones living today in Africa and Asia, were absent in the Batallones faunas, and in fact none of the species that we find at the sites is nearly as specialized as modern hyenas for efficient scavenging.
But if we concentrate on the two kinds of predators mentioned in the title of this post, we find that while none of them is a specialized scavenger, their inferred diets were as different as can be for two carnivores.
The sabertooth cat was an extreme hypercarnivore: its carnassials (the pair of teeth that act as scissors and are used by carnivores for cutting meat) were enormous and extremely blade-like, and the rest of the cheek-teeth (or postcanine dentition) were either blade-like, or extremely reduced, or lost. This means that the dentition of the sabertooths served for little purpose other than processing the meat of large prey. Bone-cracking or crunching vegetable matter were nearly impossible.
Bears, on the other hand, are essentially omnivores with multi-purpose dentitions. They have a collection of wide, blunt premolars and molars which can grind plant material, crush bones or cut meat according to what is available. They are not extremely efficient in any of these actions but are reasonably good at all of them. Perhaps their greatest strenght would be vegetarianism, but they are mere amateurs compared to, say, ruminants. Indarctos, the bear found at Batallones, was more primitive than its modern relatives in several ways, but essentially it was already a very recognizable bear.
One important advantage of the bear dentition is its potential for adaptation to changing conditions. From something not very different from a modern brown bear (in terms of diet and habits), evolution produced the giant panda over the course of a few million years, as an adaptation to a diet mostly composed of bamboo. Even more surprising, a member of the brown bear lineage evolved, over the course of a few millennia, to give rise to the polar bear, an animal that feeds almost exclusively on meat. It is certain that, when faced to the kind of pressure that led those bear lineages to such radical dietary shifts, a large sabertooth cat would respond very differently. To put it simply: it would go extinct.
Here is a reconstruction of Indarctos, shown to the same scale as that of Machairodus, both based on fossils from Batallones
As two kinds of carnivores of broadly similar body size, Machairodus and Indarctos would not be especially happy to meet each other at Batallones. Getting together around carcasses, as they may have done on ocassion, would have been a tense situation. But for most of the time, their different diets and lifestyles allowed these animals to stay away from each other and avoid direct competition. Such was the case with later species of bears and sabertooths in the following millions of years, until one of the two lineages disappeared from the Earth at the end of the Pleistocene.
But let us now return to the present day, back in the Asturian mountains. Bear observation here is a real privilege, since only a few years ago these animals were on the very edge of extinction in Spain and you could hardly expect to see one in the wild, no matter how many hours you spent looking for it. But once you get to see them (usually quite far away and looking through a telescope), it may be a bit disappointing to see that all they do is graze on the fresh grass, almost like the chamois herds that share those mountains with them. But as we watched a young, yearling bear walk down a steep hill side, it casually approached a chamois herd. And the herd did not react as they would do at the approach of a fellow ruminant. They got pretty nervous and kept their distance, while trying not to lose sight of the bear. In sum, they reacted as they would do in front of a predator. The bear may spend most of its time grazing, but it does not deceive the true herbivores around it. They recongnize a potential predator when they see it, be it a sabertooth or a bear!
You can watch the video following this link:
It has been my fate as of late to produce prehistoric murals in record time. One recent example is the reconstruction of the late Miocene environment and fauna from La Roma 2 fossil site in Teruel, commissioned by Spanish Museum “Dinópolis”. The schedule was so tight that it would have been impossible to do it in time, if it weren´t for a fortunate circumstance: this fossil site has been excavated over the last few years by a team of paleontologists who also happen to be my colleagues and friends, and in fact I have been involved in the study of some of the amazing fossils recovered there. As a result, I was quite familiar with the anatomy of most of the mammal species known from the site, which helped make my work so much simpler -and faster.
La Roma 2 has made headlines recently for the discovery of a new species of primitive otter, Teruelictis riparius, and also for the first finding of a pathological individual of the sabertooth cat Promegantereon. It also has yielded a truly spectacular concentration of hyaenid coprolites (hyena poo, to say it plainly), which in turn contain pollen useful for determining the vegetation that existed in the area some 9 million years ago. And it has one of the most amazing concentrations of bones of the three-toed horse Hipparion in Spain, a concentration that allowed scientists to determine that the larger of the two Hipparion species found at the site belonged to a new species, which has been named after the site: Hipparion laromae.
Even with my familiarity with the fauna of La Roma, it would have been impossible to complete this assignment in time if it weren’t for the advantages of digital painting. Working in layers makes all modifications and adjustments so much easier. This painting was intended as the background of a large exhibit case with fossils being exhibited in front. Halfway through the process, the exhibit curators told me that I needed to make sure to move any essential elements of the painting away from a large area in the right side foreground, in order to leave room for a skeleton of Hipparion that would be mounted in front of the mural. If something like that happens while you are working on an oil painting, you are tempted to commit suicide -or at least to induce others to commit it. Fortunately, when you have all the essential elements of the painting in separate layers, you are free to shuffle things a little to one side or the other and take them out of the way of harm.
This image shows the La Roma painting with some (not nearly all) of its foreground layers visible. In a previous version, the horse herd invaded the right hand section of the mural, but I had to move them to the left in order to leave room for the mounted skeleton exhibited in front.
Now I have uploaded a video where you will see the mural virtually “dissected”, showing all the layers as they appear over the bare background landscape:
But if you want to see the mural in all its 6-meter glory, together with a collection of amazing fossils from La Roma 2, you need to pay a visit to Dinópolis in Teruel!
One question I am asked often is “how long does it take you to create a life reconstruction of a sabertooth?”. Well, we can use as an example my digital painting of Megantereon drinking from a forest stream, first published in the book “Sabertooth”. For this illustration I used a digital 3D model of the animal’s skeleton and life appearance that helped me to make sure the proportions were right. Probably the single most important part of that model is the skull, so let us concentrate for now in the process leading to the creation of the skull model. The steps can be summarized as follows:
1.- Gather all the available information about existing fossil skulls of the animal, published or otherwise. This includes travelling to different museums to study the material first hand, since even the published fossils are often poorly figured (time: several years).
2.- Combine the best preserved parts of the different fossils in order to “Frankenstein” an ideal, perfect skull. Supplement the broken, crushed or missing parts of one skull with the intact portions of another, and draw the “ultimate” skull in several views (lateral, dorsal, ventral…) with loving attention to detail and measurement (time: several weeks).
3.- Scan those carefully drawn views, import them to a 3D modelling software and use them as templates to create a digital 3D model of the animal’s skull (time: several days).
Once you have gotten there, you can rotate the skull in your screen and choose the angle more suitable for your next sabertooth portrait, render the object and use that render as a template for your drawing of the living animal’s head.
There is so much more invloved in the process, but this particular part is for me one of the most important, since the head embodies so much of an animal’s “personality”.
For a more lively explanation of the whole process, I suggest that you download our film “Bringing the Sabertooths Back to Life” (just follow this link: https://sellfy.com/p/vFjC/ ). Getting ever closer to know the sabertooths as living animals is every bit as fascinating as it is laborious. And of cousrse, having the “blueprint” is only just the point where the real fun begins!
Driving through the African savannah in search of the leopard is an exercise in patience, and often ultimately frustrating. Small wonder it is so, because for this predator to survive, remaining unseen and unheard is of the essence. That is why every encounter with a leopard in the wild is so special.
There are many adaptations that help the leopard to achieve such discretion, and one of them is flexibility. The ranges of rotation of its joints, expecially those of the limb bones, allow it to achieve a remarkably low profile for an animal so big.
A comparison of the articular ends of the limb bones of sabertooths shows us that many of them were just as flexible as their modern relatives. For one of my reconstructions of the sabertooth Megantereon I played with the rotation ranges of the limb articulations in order to show the animal in a stalking pose.
First I examined photos of stalking felines and used the “bone point” method to determine the position and articulation angles of the bones inside the animal. Then I drew the skeleton of Megantereon in a comparable pose, and added the muscles and other soft tissue to complete the external outline of the animal. I have to admit that in order to make the animal more visible in the final rendering of the scene, I set it against a dark green background, which was almost a cruel thing to do since I somehow “blew its cover”… But in the real world, cats sometimes manage to crawl undetected towards its prey against pretty uncooperative backgrounds, sometimes in absolute lack of vegetational cover.
For that illustration I chose a moderate degree of flexion of the limb articulations, so that it was obvious enough that the animal was stalking while keeping its body proportions reasonably evident. But the flexibility of the cats allows them to take things to the extreme, as we were privileged to see in Botswana last september.
There, we encountered a female leopard that was alarmed by the presence of an approaching baboon troop. She took to the cover of some bushes, but on her way had to cross an expanse of flat ground devoid of any cover. And so we saw her crawling with her belly nearly touching the ground, and yet moving surprisingly fast. Funnily, I was instantly reminded of my own pet cat when she was alarmed by the ring of the doorbell and crawled under the bed for safety… A cat is a cat, always.