Research Nimravus

Did Ratha really exist?

Many readers have asked me what prehistoric species Ratha is based on. Originally, I chose Nimravus, a leopard-like creature from the early Miocene. I was inspired the Charles R. Knight painting of Nimravus fighting with another early sabertoothed nimravid, Eusmilus.  At the time Knight did the painting, nimravids were thought to be early felids and were called "paleofelids". 

Eusmilus fighting Nimravus, painting by Charles R. Knight

Painting by Charles R. Knight

The painting visualises a real incident in paleo-history, since Knight based it on a Nimravus skull that had a hole in the forehead that matched a Eusmilus saber.  Eusmilus got Nimravus right through the forehead, as depicted.  Interestingly enough, the Nimravus skull shows signs of healing, which indicates that the individual lived for a while after the attack.  It suggested an intriguing story, which became part of the idea for Ratha's Creature.

Nimravus later gave its name to its family, which is called Nimravidae. Individual species are nimravids, such as the one shown.  

Image from the John Day Formation (Oregon) website

 

This fossil of N. brachiops (Eaton - 1926) included only the neck and head, so little is known about the body and legs.  The different artists used their own judgement and interpretation. Knight's Nimravus appears to based more on the African leopard, with it's longer legs. Another nimravid, Nimravus' cousin Dinictis, does have longer limbs.

The John Day artist portrays it more like the tree-climbing Asian clouded leopard, with a longer body and shorter legs. He may have based his interpretation on the skeleton of Proaelurus, thought to be directly ancestral to the felids.

 

Research Dinaelurus

Many years after the first four books appeared, I learned about a new fossil creature called Dinaelurus. There was speculation that this animal might have been a cheetah-like "cursorial predator".

( "Cursorial" means an animal that courses or runs down its prey.)

At that time, no-one had drawn a reconstruction of Dinaelurus similar to the one of Nimravus above. I decided to try, but it was hard to find a drawing or photo of the skull.  I finally ended up enlarging a very tiny drawing in an evolutionary tree illustrating  the  development of the nimravids.                                         

It worked well enough for me to start the clay sculpture shown below. I intended to use the model as a reference for sketches.  I was amazed at how real it looked in the photograph even though the model is scaled down by roughly one-third.

Photo and model by Clare Bell, 2006

Below is the skull of Dinaelurus  crassus, from  the John Day formation in Oregon. This drawing was part of the original scientific paper by Eaton describing the fossil, and is one of three illustrating front, top and side views./p>

Side view drawing of Dinaelurus crassus by Eaton 1926

Image from the 1926 paper by Eaton

This was sent to me by Spanish artist Maricio Anton, who did the beautiful illustrations for The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives, by Alan Turner. I had emailed him a query about Dinaelurus and he very kindly emailed me the images.

I used them to correct and complete the model above, although I retained the skull flange shown in the original reference. I think the fossil in the drawing had the back of the flange broken off.  Or maybe I need to re-do the sculpture. The model is slightly rotated in the photo.

Here's my sculpture of Dinaelurus crassus, built on the above clay skull.  I built up the form anatomically, adding muscles and other bits.

 

Model and photo 2006 by Clare Bell

 

Research Cougar/Cheetah

So far, researchers have only found the fossil skull of Dinaelurus crassus.  They have extrapolated certain features, such as a shortened face (as compared to its cousin, Nimravus) and enlarged nasal passages (cheetahs have those in order to get enough air into their lungs while chasing prey at more than 70 mph), to guess that this animal was a cheetah-like cursorial predator.

To envision Ratha's body structure, I looked at illustrations of cheetah and puma skeletons in Turner and Anton's book.  I blended the two, giving her essentially the back legs of a cheetah, (made more robust)  for speed and power. She also has a long cheetah-like tail for balance in jumps and turns. Her front legs and shoulders are like those of a "stretched" puma, for power in pulling down and wrestling prey.

As you can see in the annotated sketch below, I drew the bones first, then outlined the body based on musculature. As described in the book, she is a solid fawn rather than spotted, but I gave her the cheetah "tear-line" facial markings since I was inspired by the cover of the original Ratha's Challenge.

 

Sketch by Clare Bell 2006

Like a puma, Ratha has a slightly raised rump, and she has similar jumping abilities. She also climbs trees like a puma.  Her top speed in a sprint is less than a cheetah, but greater than a puma.  She probably has greater endurance than a cheetah.

This sketch was a good first step, but I wasn't completely satisfied with it. 

The hindquarters looked too large as compared to the forequarters, and the head looked too small. To get a brain-to-body ratio closer to that of a human, I had to enlarge the head without distorting it.

I wasted many pieces of paper trying.  It wasn't until I determined the head shape by doing the Dinaelurus illumina skull sculpture shown below that I got close to what I wanted.

Dinaelurus illumina sapiens skull model by Clare Bell 2006

 

>Then I was able to blend the head and body shapes in a revised working sketch.

 

Dinaelurus illumina - revised skeleton - sketch copyright by Clare Bell 2006

 

Research - Why a Cheetah?

Why base Ratha on a cheetah-like animal?

Originally I thought of the Named as  puma-like, and described them based on that image, although I did add in a little lion-pride behavior, such as the cub nursery.  When CBS Storybreak did an animated adaptation of Ratha's Creature in the mid 1980's, the Named were portrayed as "a civilization of mountain lions" on another world.

As I developed the characters, especially the herding teacher, Thakur, they took on more cheetah-like characteristics. Thakur's speed and his enjoyment of running, is described in Clan Ground. The Named herders also have to make fast dashes to cut off straying or unruly herd-beasts. These runs would be similar to cheetahs sprinting after their prey.

There was also an interesting graphic development that pushed me toward the cheetah-like concept.

Covers for the later Ratha books showed a very cheetah-like animal, since the illustrator had also done a cover for Tomorrow's Sphinx, which is about cheetahs in past and future Egypt. Internet fans of the series began to think of the Named as very cheetah-like, and I agreed, since I liked the image.

Here's the cover of the original Sphinx hardback edition. The same artist did the Ratha's Challenge cover.

Tomorrow's Sphinx hardcover

 

Ratha's Challenge hardcover 

Art for both covers by Glen Harrington. Both photos by Clare Bell 2006.  The bottom image is a very lovely blend of puma and cheetah.

 

Scientists had also discovered that the puma and cheetah appeared to be closely related.  The North American cheetah-like cat Miracynonyx is also thought to be ancestral to today's mountain lions.  (put in Miracynonyx pic?)

So it wasn't that large a step from a puma-like animal to a cheetah-like animal.  However, I did not change the earlier books when they were reprinted. People liked them as they were, and everyone forms their own vision of the Named anyway.

But I still had an annoying little inconsistency.  The jacket flap copy for Ratha's Creature, the first in the series, said that the story was set 20-25 million years ago in the early Miocene. Cheetahs and cheetah-like ancestors such as Miracynonyx didn't exist at that time.  They appeared much later, in the Pliocene. Acinonyx jubatus, the present-day cheetah, appeared in the Pleistocene era, no more than 5 million years ago.

There was no resolution, so I just let things be, at least for a while. It wouldn't mar anyone's enjoyment of the books.

 

Dinaelurus Illumina

When I heard later that Dinaelurus crassus, which did exist at the required time, was being described as a "cheetah precursor", I decided to use that creature as a basis for my fictional clan cats.

Thus I decided that Ratha and the Named would descend from Dinaelurus crassus, and would be called Dinaelurus illumina sapiens. "Illumina" comes from the light of intelligence, and "sapiens" describes their human-equivalent (although not human-like) minds.

Just to show how cover art can influence writing, I added more cheetah behavior in the new book, Ratha's Courage. The "courting circle" where Fessran and the other Named females are trapped is based on observations of male cheetahs. (link)

In order to work out for myself how Ratha and her kind may have appeared, I made the clay model shown previously of a Dinaelurus crassus skull . I then did a copy of that skull and modified it, enlarging the braincase to allow for the intelligence and sentience of the Named.  Both models are shown below. Dinaelurus crassus is on the left,  Dinaelurus illumina sapiens (Ratha) is on the right.

Photo and model by Clare Bell 2006

I then used the Dinaelurus illumina sapiens skull as the basis to reconstruct what Ratha and her people could have looked like.  I built it up anatomically, as I did the Dinaelurus crassus sculpture, although I did allow a little artistic license.

Here's the final result, which I really like.  The higher forehead gives her a more cerebral appearance without marring the cat-like quality. The lower face and placement of the eyes is very similar to Dinaelurus crassus and gives the model an exotic feel.

Dinaleurus illumina sapiens Ratha

Photo and model by Clare Bell 2006

The raised forehead, rounded ears and large eyes give Ratha a cheetah-like appearance, but the muzzle is deeper (top to bottom) and narrower (side to side) than that of a cheetah. She also has the strong tooth roots that influence the facial structure of the nimravid sabertooths, although her teeth don't protrude as dramatically.

The sinus area is enlarged like that of a cheetah, for enhanced deep breathing during a chase. That causes the arch in her nose.
 

I am not a professional paleontologist, nor a trained paleo-artist.  I just used my drawing and sculpting skills as an experiment in visualizing my characters.  It made them even more real to me, which helped me write the new book, Ratha's Courage.

I am grateful to Spanish artist Mauricio Anton for his interest and assistance.

My thanks goes to Emily Smith, who suggested that visitors to this site might like to see some more artwork showing how an author can visualize and develop a character. (She also suggested additional pages in large typeface on the original site, which makes that site available to visually-challenged people like her.)  I enjoy working back and forth from words to images, and I am sure there are many talented author/artists who do the same.