Smilodon Reconstruction

Medium/Software: pencil and ink on paper, coloring and layout in Photoshop
Created: March 2020

I had the great fortune of sitting in on a class taught by the eminent paleo-artist Maurico Anton at the Gray Fossil Site in Tennessee. Sadly, one week later the coronavirus shut down all remaining classes. This was my homework from week 1. The exercise was to reconstruct the appearance of an extinct animal from its fossil remains. In this case we used a photo of a Smilodon fatalis skull, an extinct saber-toothed cat found in abundance at the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

Smilodon skull
The photo of a smilodon skull cast used as a reference for reconstruction

First I traced the skull and teeth with tracing paper. Then, using a light box, I transferred the outline to drawing paper. Next, I placed the eyeball in the eye socket, added major muscle groups, set the whisker pads and nose in place, and then fleshed out the skin and lips around them. This creates an anatomically-accurate shape for the Smilodon!

Behavioral deduction is also an important step in any paleo art reconstruction. As the jaw is open to full extension, I had to decide what behavior this cat might be exhibiting. Based on my observations of living big cats in Africa, and the reference photos I’ve taken, I decided there were two possible options: the cat was either about to deliver a killing bite, or he was yawning. I opted for the more peaceful illustration. While big cats may also open their mouth during a snarl, the top of the head is held level and low, and the mouth is only partially open, though the lips are pulled back which would be nice for depicting the large canines.

lion snarling and mating
Male lion snarling while mating. Photographed in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa 2020.

Another option is a roar. But again, modern big cats hold the mouth only slightly open during a roar, and the lips generally hang loosely (for example in the lion below) which is not great for showing the long canines.

lion roaring
A lion roaring on a sand dune in the Kalahari, South Africa, 2020

In this case, the skull position was predetermined for me, held high with the jaw open to full extension, in the exact position of a yawning cat.

Now that I knew what my smilodon was doing, I used reference photos I’ve taken of modern big cats yawning (lions, leopards, caracals, tigers, cheetahs) to hone in on the muscle groups used, the position of the lips and tongue, the folding of the skin above the nose, and to decide what the eyes were doing. I discovered that all cats close their eyes while yawning. (Although occasionally the eyes are open before or after full extension of the jaw.)

Photos I’ve taken of big cats yawning. Caracal, Cheetah, and Lion in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa. Leopard in Etosha National Park, Namibia. Tiger in captivity.

Using these references I completed my pencil sketch and inked it. Below is a scan of that sketch.

Just after I inked the tongue I noticed a major error in my reconstruction. I had allowed the tongue to fold in half and lay between the lower canines the way it does in modern big cats. But upon studying the original skull I realized that the lower canines of Smilodon fatalis are actually the same height as the lower incisors, (also known as incisiform canines). Take a look back at the smilodon skull above to see what I mean. In modern big cats, however, the lower canines are much larger and longer (look at the big cats yawning reference photos above) which causes the tongue to lie between them. In effect, my Smilodon’s tongue was passing directly through its incisors. After scanning my line art, I pulled the tongue back and raised it in photoshop, allowing it instead to lay on top of the lower incisors. I also raised the eye slightly to a more accurate position. Here’s the completed line art.

This was the end of the assignment but I decided that I would add some color for fun. My first round was some flat comic-book-style coloring in Photoshop.

Then I gave him a background of a starry sky at twilight. My vision was to depict the moment that a cat wakes from sleep and prepares for a long night of hunting. I also wanted to choose a suggestion of vegetation to represent his habitat.

This smilodon fossil was found at the La Brea tar pits in California where a good deal of plant matter from the last ice age has been discovered. (10,000 to 50,000 years ago). One of these habitats is a mixed evergreen and redwood forest. As my paleontologist friend Dr Steven (Wally) Wallace informed me, smilodon fossils begin to appear in the fossil record at around the same time that deer fossils became plentiful. He surmises they may have been deer-hunting specialists. Wally is an extinct cat expert so I take his ideas seriously. Deer are forest and forest-edge creatures, so I put my cat at the edge of an evergreen forest of fir trees. I blurred my fir tree silhouettes (and the starry sky) to give a bit more depth to the image.

Finally I placed a deep purplish-blue adjustment layer mask above my cat’s color layers to create late evening shading effects. Layer masks are kind of fun to look at after they’re done, so here’s a peek at mine.

photoshop layer mask for shading effects
The shading layer mask in my smilodon illustration

This was my Smilodon fatalis reconstruction, with a title thrown in the back to add to the comic book styling. This could make a cool poster!

In retrospect, I wished I hadn’t borrowed so heavily from the face patterning of the modern tiger. I consider spots to be the default pattern of modern cats (even lions are spotted if you look closely). So it’s more likely that Smilodon’s coat pattern was spotted, or perhaps a simpler tawny/rust color that some modern cats exhibit. But the main reason I wish I hadn’t is that it perpetuates the misnomer “saber-toothed tiger”. Paleontologists agree that Smilodon was certainly no tiger!

For that reason, when I used this illustration as the featured artwork on the home page of this website, I redesigned the coat pattern to make it more spotted. Here was the final result (with cat flipped, background extended for better layout, and a couple shooting stars.)

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