Creodonts & The Absurdity of Extinction

I just fell down a rather wonderful rabbit hole. My tale begins with a book review, written by Ross Barnett, of Sabretooth (Mauricio Anton). Apart from instantly causing me to add the book to my “to buy” list, the article also briefly lists the various mammalian clades which have exhibited sabre teeth in the past. Amongst this list were those I had expected, such as machairodonts (e.g. the famous Smilodon) and the marsupial Thylacosmilus, but it also contained several I had never heard of. Most notably, it mentioned creodonts.

If I’ve ever come across creodonts before I wasn’t paying much attention because these creatures are fascinating. As a group they are an early success story in the mammalian radiation that occurred at the ending of the Cretaceous, yet despite their broad range and varied niche placement they are now utterly gone. Whilst they may look akin to modern hyenas, cats and even bears, the creodonts are not closely related (or basal) to the carnivorans. They are their own unique, and now absent, thing.

I’ve always found the notion of entire clade extinction somewhat absurd. I remember first reading about the K/T event that signalled the extinction of the dinosaurs and, even at an age written in single figures, feeling that there was something inherently wrong with the narrative. I get how large, extinction level events cause biodiversity to crash, but the idea that such a wildly successful and diverse group of creatures would all succumb seemed silly. I must admit, then, that as I’ve aged it has been with increasing smugness that I’ve watched the consensus switch from “dinosaurs are extinct” to “non-bird dinosaurs are extinct”. Frankly, at this point, I feel the old narrative should just be ignored. The K/T event knocked several wonderful animal groups on their respective heads, but the dinosaurs were not amongst them.

Still, though, the plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, ammonites and myriad pterosaur groups were all wiped out, amongst many, many others. Whole families, even genera, do go extinct, often with frightening rapidity when everything is considered. That still feels odd, plus more than a little disappointing, and I can now add creodonts to the list of groups which I would love to have had the chance to meet.

But my journey didn’t stop there. Intrigued and fired up by the beautiful imagery of Sabretooth, I went hunting for palaeoart of creodonts. Unfortunately, I largely came back empty handed, but my wide Googling did lead me to discover a new blog to subscribe to: Into the Wonder. It’s a loose connection to the subject I was after, but it’s always fun to discover someone actively writing about developing fantasy lore and creature creation!

Plus, who knows? It took over a century for someone to realise the creodonts were not just another branch of Carnivora, which is a large enough group for some individuals to have only undergone cursory examination, so perhaps they actually aren’t all gone. Maybe, just possibly, one day in the future, some slightly odd mustelid or squash-faced felid will turn out to be a creodont in hiding. Maybe that discovery will even answer questions about an unsolved riddle of folklore? It’s possible… though it’s probably also asking far too much…

Life Between the Worlds [#37]

I have recently fallen back into an old habit: League of Legends. The eponymous MOBA remains immensely addictive, fun and interesting, but above all else my return (after over a year!) has highlighted that Riot are finally managing to get their world building in order. The lore behind Runeterra was always a big draw for me, leading me to pore over every new champion’s bio pages to find out how they fit into the world and whose stories they might impact. Over time, the original plot of League became a little stale and boring; champions that could simply be summoned from any region of the multiverse understandably felt disconnected from each other.

As a result, Riot made the decision a few years ago to begin reworking the story of Runeterra. Rather than completely overhauling everything, at great expense to time and resources, they have instead slowly been chipping away at the established characters. That leaves some, like my personal favourite Rammus, in a state of unknown origin, whilst others like Urgot have really begun to shine. It also means the in-game lore is a little disjointed, with some bios referencing events or characters that don’t add up, such as recent champion Ornn referencing Volibear as a demi-god, rather than the mortal leader his own bio describes him as. Overall, the effect can be a little confusing, but when it works well it produces some absolutely fantastic fantasy.

For example, in the past I’ve been incredibly interested by the setup of the Harrowing, an event which has it’s routes in Halloween but, over time, has become something far more sinister and interesting. Most importantly from a world building angle it helps to explain a number of the more demonic champions, giving them a shared and interlinked history whilst explaining how creatures of utter darkness aren’t simply ruling this world by now. It adds to the mythos wonderfully and remains the centre of some of the best in-game events they’ve had to date.

So, upon my latest return, I was excited to find another area of lore which has been fleshed out in a genuinely fascinating way. In an attempt to simultaneously develop how magic works within the game and explain numerous “chimeric” characters, the world-builders behind Runeterra have come up with the Vastaya. The full logic behind the decisions has been written up in a brilliant dev blog article, which is well worth a read if you’re interested in world building at all, but the outcome is genius. I love seeing entirely novel takes on something so integral to the genre as magic and, with the concept of the Vastaya and their ancient brethren, I genuinely believe Riot have achieved that.

There are a huge number of explanations for how magic works, yet most fantasy franchises just wave their hands or come up with something that seems like an explanation until you realise they just changed the word (cough Midichlorians cough). The route League has gone down is certainly not completely fleshed out; magic itself remains something ethereal and just naturally occurring rather than having a (necessarily) distinct source. I like their incorporation of ley lines, not because it’s unique or original (it isn’t) but because they have thought through the implications. I love that intersections of ley lines become areas of wilder magic, and that magic even has different breeds or flavours to begin with. That’s a nice touch which, as they state themselves, allows a huge amount of complexity to develop within the system.

Above all else though, the concept of the vastayashai’rei is genius. It’s one of those concepts which I read and instantly wished I had thought of myself. It’s wonderfully simple yet also feels very original (to be clear, I’m not saying it’s genuinely unique, but I’ve never seen it before). In Runeterra, magic is an extra-dimensional energy, bleeding through via ley lines, creating border zones: areas of world which are part magical dimension, part Runeterra. But the dimension in which magic originates is not just the standard swirling, lifeless maelstrom. It’s a functioning universe with it’s own ecosystems and, crucially, life. Whilst improbable, our own planet is proof that life thrives on these biological edges, in the types of habitat that just shouldn’t work. Look at any geothermal pool and you’ll see this effect in full swing. Right where the water reaches boiling point the lifeforms are unique, often occurring no where else on the planet.

When extrapolated out to a mixing of two entirely different dimensions you end up with creatures that have evolved to survive in both. Magical animals that can take physical form. I love it. I love the idea that a creature learnt that it could hop through the ley lines and find sustenance, or escape predators, by doing so. Over time, that developed into a fully functioning race of sentient creatures which could transgress the boundaries between the two worlds. Taking it one step further, the team at Riot realised that such creatures wouldn’t need a fixed physical form, as it wasn’t inherent to their nature. In short, they became shape shifters, creatures capable of adapting the forms they found themselves requiring within the physical world. Throw in a little bit of interbreeding or evolutionary branches that chose to remain on the physical side permanently and you explain chimeras, creatures with evolutionarily impossible physical forms. Sheer, pure, brilliance.

It’s nothing less than incredible that the reason behind this level of ingenuity is a game which lacks any form of story mode at all; there’s no need for any of these musings beyond making the world more entertaining. That’s pretty awesome, too!

Hyperfocal Stone Rows [#19]

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend a long weekend in Dartmoor. We ended up visiting Wistman’s Wood for much of the first afternoon, which was so captivating we would have definitely spent the whole day there had the heavens not opened. It was our main reason for going and it definitely did not disappoint; there is genuinely something ethereal about that location!

Before the weather turned, we also managed to get up to a couple of tors and visit some of the wonderful stone rows that Dartmoor is (apparently) famous for. I come from the Lake District, so standing stones and Bronze Age circles are nothing new to me, but I have never seen anything quite like the stone rows of Dartmoor. Combined with their incredibly curated streams, the rows create a fantastical landscape that I really wasn’t expecting. I will definitely be back, during better weather and with more time.

However, the combination of rows and stones also offered a great opportunity for creating leading lines in landscape photographs. I’ll admit to spending far too long waiting for specific lighting conditions, wind directions etc. but I also had a lot of fun. The odd part was, I really struggled to get my shots in focus. To try and foreshorten the shots a little bit, hopefully creating a feeling of being ‘pulled’ into the photo, I was shooting landscapes using zoom lenses, which is not a technique I’ve tried before. Part of the reason I’ve steered clear of this setup is that zoom lenses tend to have tighter depths of field, making it harder to get the full shot in focus. Still, with scenes of prehistoric landmarks marching off to distant, cloud-shaded peat fells, I wanted to capture the sense of vastness that seemed to be all around me.

Logically, I know that the next step is to reduce the size of my aperture. But what I found was, on a windy day without a stable tripod, that at the apertures needed for full focus I was losing clarity. I was also struggling to get the foreground and distant background in focus, no matter the exposure I went for. I happened to notice that focusing on a particular stone, about a third of the way into my composition, was giving me much better results. I’ll admit, at the time I just went with it, though it felt counter intuitive. Having come back and done some research, it turns out my intuitions were just wrong.

Hyperfocal distance. It sounds like something out of Star Wars, doesn’t it? In reality, however, it may finally be the answer to one of my biggest ‘errors’ when taking landscape photographs. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail in this article about the whys and hows of hyperfocal distance (though if that’s what you’re after, there’s a reading list at the end) but just coming to understand it a little better has been enlightening.

In brief, the hyperfocal distance of your lens/camera/setup is the point within your frame that allows for the broadest depth-of-field when in focus. That sounds a little odd, so to understand first realise this: it is impossible to get an image completely focused in one shot. No matter how good the lens, how wide the focal range, how small the aperture you will always have some areas out of focus. But, the level of “out of focus” can be completely imperceptible, so a lot of photographs appear to be in focus. These shots are using their hyperfocal distance; the actual, truly focused region will be at the precise point in the frame that enables 99% of what’s left to be only slightly out of focus. Our brains fill in the rest.

Now, that isn’t something I’ve ever come across before and it’s not something I’ve specifically learned, but it does seem completely intuitive to me. My problem is that the solution I’ve been using for years fails to understand the actual cause of the issue. I think I have always assumed that focus works by focusing from me to wherever I set the focal point. Changing the aperture, I believed, then changed the focal grading from that point outwards, so a large aperture has a steep gradient and clear blurring/bokeh, whilst a small aperture produces a very shallow gradient where only the very closest extremes are noticeably fuzzy. In a way, I was right, but the effect is far more centred on the focal point then I had realised. It’s not a line in the image, in front of which everything is focused, but more a circle or ellipse, around which the focus slowly worsens in a semi-linear manner.

What that means is that focusing on the distant horizon, effectively to infinity, which has always been my go-to technique, will result in an out-of-focus foreground. Seems obvious, right? But it will also reduce focus in the mid-ground. Conversely, focus near to the camera and the horizon becomes blurred. The trick, as I had accidentally stumbled upon, is to focus somewhere in between the two, effectively allowing your focal circle the widest diameter possible.

Fantastic, right? I just need to focus at the mid point of the frame and everything will slot into place! Well… no, not exactly. Or at least, not easily. Drawing a line between yourself and the horizon and estimating the mid-point isn’t going to give you the hyperfocal distance. Why? Well, that’s because the camera doesn’t “see” in three dimensions, instead it effectively “sees” in 2-D. Especially with zoom lenses, that foreshortening of the landscape matters, moving the hyperfocal distance towards you. It seems a good rule of thumb is to focus somewhere around the one third mark, but in reality that will be wrong more than it is right. The internet is full of suggested methods to work out your hyperfocal distance, some easier than others, but as of yet I haven’t actually tried any of them out.

But it won’t be too long until I do. We’re heading to the Outer Hebrides in the next few weeks and you can be sure that I will be taking a lot of landscape shots whilst we’re there. Learning about hyperfocal distance (as well as other factors that can result in reduced clarity) has really lit a spark in my mind. I’m itching to get out and try some of this theory in the field; it’s a nice feeling, one I haven’t had for a while (with photography, at least). Hopefully, next time I report back, it will be to say that I’ve finally answered one of my longest standing conundrums with landscape shots: how to focus, well, everywhere.


Whilst researching the topic I came across a whole lot of really informative and interesting articles around the web. Some are specifically about hyperfocal distance, but some are more focused on lens sharpness or landscape techniques. Hopefully, combined, they will form a good bed of information to start practicing with.

Hyperfocal Distance ExplainedPhotographyLife

How to Choose the Sharpest AperturePhotographyLife

What is the Sharpest Aperture on a LensImprove Photography

Panoramic Photography TutorialPhotographyLife

How to Calculate the Sharpest Aperture of Any LensEnvatotuts