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Good Reads  Mammals  Insectivores to Ungulates  Carnivores  Hyaenas & Cats (Hyaenidae - Felidae)

On the Prowl In Search of Big Cat Origins

By: Mark Hallett(Author), John M Harris(Author)
259 pages, 12 plates with colour photos and colour illustrations; b/w photos, b/w illustrations, b/w maps
Refining the rich and complex story of big cat evolution, On the Prowl features jaw-droppingly beautiful illustrations that make this one of 2020's must-buy palaeontology books.
On the Prowl
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  • On the Prowl ISBN: 9780231184502 Hardback Jun 2020 In stock
Price: £30.00
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About this book

Big cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars fascinate us like few other creatures. They are enduring symbols of natural majesty and power. Yet despite the magnetic appeal of the big cats, their origins and evolutionary history remain poorly understood – and human activity threatens to put an end to the big cats' glory.

On the Prowl is a fully illustrated and approachable guide to the evolution of the big cats and what it portends for their conservation today. Mark Hallett and John M. Harris trace the origins of these iconic carnivores, venturing down the evolutionary pathways that produced the diversity of big cat species that have walked the earth. They place the evolution and paleobiology of these species in the context of ancient ecosystems and climates, explaining what made big cats such efficient predators and analyzing their competition with other animals. Hallett and Harris pay close attention to human impact, from the evidence of cave paintings and analysis of ancient extinctions up to present-day crises. Their engaging and carefully documented account is brought to life through detailed, vivid illustrations by the paleoartist Hallett based on the most recent research by leading paleontologists. Offering a fresh look at the rise of these majestic animals, On the Prowl also makes a powerful case for renewed efforts to protect big cats and their habitats before it is too late.



1. Threads in the Fabric of Time
2. Anatomy of a Hunter
3. A Breath of Frost
4. Beyond the Distant Horizons
5. Testimony of the Caves
6. Aftermath of an Ice Age
7. Man the Destroyer
8. The Steeds of Durga

Appendix 1: Distribution of Pantherins and Other Felids in Geologic Time
Appendix 2: Pantherin Dispersals Across the World
Appendix 3: Taking Action
Appendix 4: Species of the Genus Panthera

Suggested Reading

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A beautiful marriage of art and science
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 15 Jul 2020 Written for Hardback

    Charismatic as big cats might be, their origins and evolutionary history are still not fully understood. In a mind-bogglingly beautiful marriage of art and science, On the Prowl provides a current overview of big cat evolution that will have many a book lover purring with pleasure.

    Before I even get to the contents of the book I simply have to first highlight the artwork. On the Prowl is authored by naturalist and scientific artist Mark Hallett and geologist and emeritus curator John M. Harris, with Hallett additionally providing artwork. And these are not mere pretty decorations.

    Oh my, where do I even begin?

    This is the rare category of tastefully executed scientific illustrations: anatomical drawings, behavioural sequences, phylogenetic trees, maps, reconstructions of life appearance, and beautiful full-bleed (i.e. printed edge to edge) pictures opening each chapter. Every drawing, full of detail, has been carefully crafted, has a function in the book, and has been drawn in the same tasteful pencil-sketch style. Jaw-dropping? Gob-smacking? You pick your favourite superlative – I was floored when I first opened this book. Basically, do not browse through this if you were planning not to buy more books this month, because it will be very hard to put it back down.

    But what of the actual writing? On the Prowl spends five chapters tracing the outline of big cat evolution during the last 23 million years. The last three chapters deal, notably, with recent declines and extinctions, and current conservation concerns. The focus here is on the pantherines or subfamily Pantherinae; the lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, and snow leopards. Not discussed in as much detail and acting more as supporting cast are the Felinae (pumas, cheetahs, and smaller genera such as lynxes, ocelots, clouded leopards etc.) and the various sabertoothed cats. Seeing the number of books already dealing with these it is easy to agree with their decision not to focus any further on sabertooths here.

    The story of pantherine evolution is far from fully resolved, and this part of the book required close attention and occasional rereading. The various lineages and subspecies, notable fossil finds, and competing hypotheses all make for a rather complicated story full of details. I should add that I am not faulting Hallett and Harris’s writing, as they do an admirable job distilling a lot of technical literature into a very readable book. It is simply that, much as we might like a good narrative, reality is often unruly and does not yield to a clean, neat story. Biology is messy like that. But what a story it nevertheless is!

    An introductory overview gets you up to speed on early carnivore and carnivoran evolution and explains the difference between the two. The first cat-like species you then meet is the genus Proailurus, which (likely) evolved into Pseudalaerus, the potential ancestor to all the big cats and the “true” sabertooth cats (the machairodontines, which includes the famous Smilodon). At the time, these faced stiff competition from the so-called “false” sabertooth cats, the nimravids and barbourofelids.

    What probably gave the Felidae the competitive edge was changes in climate and, with it, vegetation: closed forests gave way to open woodlands and savannas. Chapter 2 describes in marvellously illustrated detail the anatomical and behavioural adaptations of the pantherines that made them such formidable hunters in these open habitats and helped them claw their way to the top. This placement of big cat evolution in the context of their ecosystems and their relationship to other animals is a recurring and very welcome theme in this book. The earliest known pantherine we then meet is Panthera blytheae, a possible ancestor of the modern snow leopard.

    Interestingly, it is starting to look that the Tibetan Plateau was ground zero for the pantherines from which both the snow leopard–tiger and the jaguar–lion–leopard lineages dispersed globally. Two appendices give an illustrated overview of felids in geologic time and pantherin dispersal across the world. These are useful, but, like executive summaries, are very condensed. I would have loved a few more detailed illustrations of the various timelines over which this happened, breaking out the individual lineages.

    Now, connoisseurs might have immediately perked up their ears when hearing of this book. How does it compare to the 1997 book The Big Cats and their Fossil Relatives? It similarly combined beautiful artwork with accessible text. It is one of the first things the authors tackle, writing that it focused more on the true felid and the nimravid cats and comparing the books indeed confirms this. I can see two reasons why owners of the 1997 book want to pick up this one as well. One is that it fills you in on the intervening 23 years of scientific research, especially that coming out of the Asian palaeontology community. Panthera blytheae was only discovered in 2010, and pinpointing the Tibetan Plateau as the centre of pantherine radiation strikes me as a significant advance in our understanding. Two, On the Prowl spends a substantial chunk dealing with recent extinctions and conservation concerns, something that the previous book mentioned only briefly at the end.

    Having told the story of big cat evolution, it would have been an oversight to turn a blind eye to the massive losses caused by human greed and cruelty. Thus, these chapters and their no-punches-pulled tone are fully justified. One chapter focuses on the early decline following the last ice age, in particular discussing the decline of the steppe lion (of the four discussed extinction scenarios, only one involves humans). I was somewhat surprised to see only minimal mention of Paul Martin’s overkill hypothesis when drawing a comparison to the fate of the American lion, Panthera atrox, and no mention at all of End of the Megafauna that critically discussed it. A second chapter picks up the story of extinction with the slaughter of big cats in Roman amphitheatres and habitat destruction ever since agriculture took off some ten thousand years ago. It also prominently mentions the huge impact of trophy hunting by western colonialists in Africa and Asia. The last chapter highlights the ongoing threats of poaching and wildlife trafficking, human-wildlife conflict between carnivores and cattle herders, the shortcomings of national parks, and future conservation options.

    Overall, On the Prowl provides a superb overview of the complex and rich story of big cat evolution, while being an outstanding showcase of how beautiful artwork can support science communication. I have no hesitation to recommend this book as one of 2020’s must-buy palaeontology books.
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Mark Hallett is a naturalist, scientific artist, and author who specializes in prehistoric animals and their environments. His art and writing have appeared in Life, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. He is coauthor of Seismosaurus: The Earth Shaker (Columbia, 1994) and The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants (2016), among other works.

John M. Harris is chief curator emeritus at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and visiting associate in geology at the California Institute of Technology. He is coeditor of Laetoli: A Pliocene Site in Tanzania (1987) and Lothagam: The Dawn of Humanity in Eastern Africa (Columbia, 2013).

By: Mark Hallett(Author), John M Harris(Author)
259 pages, 12 plates with colour photos and colour illustrations; b/w photos, b/w illustrations, b/w maps
Refining the rich and complex story of big cat evolution, On the Prowl features jaw-droppingly beautiful illustrations that make this one of 2020's must-buy palaeontology books.
Media reviews

"On the Prowl is a superb book, both enjoyable and instructive. I'm greatly impressed with the huge amount of data that Hallett and Harris have collected and presented in a most readable manner. The complex evolutionary history and relationships of the cats will keep researchers arguing for years."
– George Schaller, senior conservationist, Wildlife Conservation Society, and author of The Serengeti Lion: A Study of Predator-Prey Relations

"On the Prowl brings together biological and paleontological research related to the origins and history of the big cats, with an original emphasis on Asiatic data, paying homage to their majesty, dignity, and beauty. Mark Hallett's artwork has succeeded brilliantly in capturing their inner spirit and character, their vulnerability and vitality. This book will serve the noble goals of making people aware of the fragility of ecosystems and revealing the moral obligation to preserve and protect extant species."
– Christine Argot, research professor and curator of collections, Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle

"Hallett and Harris guide the reader on a 20-million-year tour of predator and prey evolution, using environmental change as an engine for adaptation and extinction. The narrative is engaging, spiked with a touch of controversy, and supported by superb illustrations. For those interested in the evolutionary origins of big cats, On the Prowl would be a valuable addition to your library."
– Christopher Shaw, Idaho Museum of Natural History

"[An] erudite study of big cats."

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