Lions and leopards: estimating early Holocene prey biomass from the rock art of Shuwaymis

The prehistoric environment of northwestern Arabia remains largely unknown. In this paper we use the animal species depicted in the rock art of Shuwaymis to reconstruct carnivore populations and prey biomass requirements. A typical pride of lions would have required over 38,000 kg of prey or approximately 166 onager to survive in the area, while a single leopard would have required a biomass equivalent to 72 mountain gazelles.

Habitat and prey preferences (based on mass) for a hypothetical Shuwaymis community for the early period of rock art. Preferred prey in black lines and prey taken relative to abundance in grey lines. Cattle are indicated in grey

Habitat and prey preferences (based on mass) for a hypothetical Shuwaymis community for the early period of rock art. Preferred prey in black lines and prey taken relative to abundance in grey lines. Cattle are indicated in grey

The simultaneous presence of lion, leopard and cheetah also suggests a mosaic of habitats with thicker vegetation along the water courses of the wadis and more open vegetation in the landscape around them. Moreover, the long-term persistence of large carnivores suggests that they were connected to larger metapopulations outside Shuwaymis, with corridors that allowed immigration and emigration of individuals.

CosmosCommunity Earth System Models (COSMOS) climate simulations show that Shuwaymis was at the northern edge of the African Summer Monsoon rainfall regime during the Holocene humid phase. This suggests that Shuwaymis was ecologically connected with the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula and that large carnivores are likely to have found suitable habitats in the areas that were reached by the monsoon.

Read more in Rock art imagery as a proxy for Holocene environmental change: A view from Shuwaymis, NW Saudi Arabia in The Holocene.