Most of the time, the African predators behave according to the biologists’ expectations. For instance, leopards haul their kills up trees in order to keep them safe from competing predators, and African wild dogs eat exclusively from their own kills and don´t bother to scavenge form other predators. After all, wild dogs are among the most efficient hunters in the African bush.
But reality has a way to challenge our assumptions, and during our safari in Botswana last year we witnessed a situation where hardly anything went according to the textbooks’ predictions.
One afternoon we found again the mother leopard whose interaction with her cub had so much endeared us. She had caught an impala ewe and the two of them had a Pantagruelian feast. But the cat was unquiet for some reason that only became evident long afterwards. She had the carcass at the foot of a tree, and at one point she climbed to rest, but to our surprise she did not carry the prey.
When darkness came we finally realized what was making her nervous: the pack of wild dogs that we had been observing for the previous days appeared out of the night and claimed the impala for themselves. With her keen senses the leopard had been aware of their presence for quite a while, long before we saw them, and that made it even more surprising that she did not haul the carcass. Was her belly already too heavy to climb with the extra weight of the impala in her jaws?
But the most surprising part of this story for us was the fact that the wild dogs would steal a kill from a leopard. The dogs appeared at the scene in an orderly manner, first an adult scout, then another, and only when they felt sure that the coast was clear did the pups arrive to the kill site.
The wild dogs consumed the carcass with impressive speed (Photo by Miguel Antón)
Many factors may have influenced the unusual outcome of this story. It is possible that the failure of the wild dog pack to secure a kill the previous day made them less selective, especially since they had a lot of young mouths to feed. May be that, being a large pack, they felt assured of their superiority. Also maybe they felt that the mother leopard would not take many risks in a battle to defend her kill when she had a vulnerable cub to take care of.
At any rate, it is clear that the real potential and flexibility of the behavior of wild predators can only be discovered with lots of hours of observation in undisturbed environments. Without that luxury, we are bound to make oversimplified theories about what the animals can do and will do in a given situation. But for the impressionable brain of the leopard cub who saw the whole thing from her branch, just out of reach of the dog’s jaws, there was an important lesson to learn for the future, as summarized in a short phrase by our safari guide: “Food on the ground, food for all”.
You can watch the story in video here:
Last summer, the editor of Dutch paleontological magazine “Cranium” approached me to ask if I would prepare an article about my reconstruction procedures to be published about the same date as the launch of the book “Sabertooth”. I grabbed that opportunity to provide a more informal, first-hand account of my experience with my favourite extinct creatures of all time.
I wanted to make this a honest account, and this means that, besides recounting the more exciting and satisfying discoveries and efforts, I also must tell of some early failures and frustrations, which I am sure will feel familiar to many paleoartists out there. After all, this is a speciality where there is no such thing as a full formal training, and each of us has to somehow “re-invent the wheel” as we develop our abilities and fill our tool box -one tool at a time.
If you want to read the whole thing, you can follow this link for the PDF:
You can visit the magazine’s web page here: