Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of Indricotheres

Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of Indricotheres

by Donald Prothero, Carl Buell

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Written for everyone fascinated by the huge beasts that once roamed the earth, this book introduces the giant hornless rhinoceros, Indricotherium. These massive animals inhabited Asia and Eurasia for more than 14 million years, about 37 to 23 million years ago. They had skulls 6 feet long, stood 22 feet high at the shoulder, and were twice as heavy as the largest


Written for everyone fascinated by the huge beasts that once roamed the earth, this book introduces the giant hornless rhinoceros, Indricotherium. These massive animals inhabited Asia and Eurasia for more than 14 million years, about 37 to 23 million years ago. They had skulls 6 feet long, stood 22 feet high at the shoulder, and were twice as heavy as the largest elephant ever recorded, tipping the scales at 44,100 pounds. Fortunately, the big brutes were vegetarians. Donald R. Prothero tells their story, from their discovery just a century ago to the latest research on how they lived and died.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Through copious background details, Prothero celebrates great and lesser-known names in the history of paleontology, as well as geological and taxonomic nitty gritty." —National Geographic Laelaps

"Within this slim tome... Prothero packs in an encyclopedic summary of indrithocere anatomy and biology... Highly recommended." —Choice

"Clearly, this book is a milestone on the subject, one of those books that are a classic already at their first appearance." —Priscum


"Within this slim tome... Prothero packs in an encyclopedic summary of indrithocere anatomy and biology... Highly recommended." —Choice

USA Today

"In a look at the biggest of these wonders... Prothero delves into these overlooked big guys, the most massive mammals to ever walk the Earth... [and] cuts across every aspect of paleontology to tell the story of these vanished giants. Chapters range from entertaining recounting of discoverers... to scholarly descriptions of the rules that biologists must follow to name a new species or estimate a vanished rhino's weight." —USA Today

National Geographic Laelaps

"Through copious background details, Prothero celebrates great and lesser-known names in the history of paleontology, as well as geological and taxonomic nitty gritty." —National Geographic Laelaps

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Indiana University Press
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Life of the Past
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Rhinoceros Giants

The Paleobiology of Indricotheres

By Donald R. Prothero

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Donald R. Prothero
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00826-8



"The New Conquest of Central Asia"

In 1922, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City sponsored one of the most ambitious scientific expeditions ever attempted. Led by the legendary explorer Roy Chapman Andrews (1884–1960), the expedition traveled to China and Mongolia with a huge caravan of seventy-five camels (each carrying 180 kg or 400 pounds of gasoline and other supplies), three Dodge touring cars and two Fulton trucks, and a large party of scientists, guides, and helpers (Fig. 1.1). The party included not only Andrews, but also paleontologist Walter Granger (1872–1941), a veteran of many fossil-hunting expeditions in the U.S. and elsewhere, who had prior experience hunting fossils in China. There were also two geologists (Charles P. Berkey and Frederick K. Morris) and many other assistants to drive the trucks and cars and camels, cook the food and set up the camp, and act as guides and interpreters.

The expedition was sent by famous paleontologist and American Museum Director Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857–1935) to find important fossils from Central Asia. Osborn believed that Asia was the center of origin of most mammal groups, including humans, and could contain the legendary "Missing Link" that was long predicted by biologists and paleontologists. Osborn used this argument not only to authorize the expedition, but also to raise funds from his many rich friends who were donors or trustees of the Museum. Osborn told Andrews, "The fossils are there. I know they are. Go and find them."

Andrews provided a colorful and detailed account of all the expeditions in his massive volume with a very un-politically correct imperialist title, The New Conquest of Central Asia. One of the most incredible finds of all occurred in the third field season (1925), as described by Andrews (1932, pp. 279–280):

The credit for the most interesting discovery at Loh belongs to one of our Chinese collectors, Liu Hsi-ku. His sharp eyes caught the glint of a white bone in the red sediment of the steep hillside. He dug a little and then reported to Granger who completed the excavation. He was amazed to find the foot and lower leg of a Baluchitherium STANDING UPRIGHT, just as if the animal had carelessly left it behind when he took another stride. Fossils are so seldom found in this position that Granger sat down to think out the why and wherefore. There was only one possible solution. Quicksand! It was the right hind limb that Liu had found; therefore, the right front leg must be farther down the slope. He took the direction of the foot, measured off about nine feet, and began to dig. Sure enough, there it was, a huge bone, like the trunk of a fossil tree, also standing erect. It was not difficult to find the two limbs of the other side, for what had happened was obvious. When all four legs were excavated, each one in a separate pit, the effect was extraordinary [Fig.1.2]. I went up with Granger and sat down upon a hilltop to drift in fancy back to those far days when the tragedy had been enacted. To one who could read the language, the story was plainly told by the great stumps. Probably the beast had come to drink from a pool of water covering the treacherous quicksand. Suddenly it began to sink. The position of the leg bones showed that it had settled slightly back upon its haunches, struggling desperately to free itself from the gripping sands. It must have sunk rapidly, struggling to the end, dying only when the choking sediment filled its nose and throat. If it had been partly buried and died of starvation, the body would have fallen on its side. If we could have found the entire skeleton standing erect, there in its tomb, it would have been a specimen for all the world to marvel at.

I said to Granger, "Walter, what do you mean by finding only the legs? Why don't you produce the rest?" "Don't blame me," he answered, "it is all your fault. If you had brought us here thirty-five thousand years earlier, before that hill weathered away, I would have the whole skeleton for you!" True enough, we had missed our opportunity by just about that margin. As the entombing sediment was eroded away, the bones were worn off bit by bit and now lay scatted on the valley floor in a thousand useless fragments. There must have been great numbers of baluchitheres in Mongolia during Oligocene times, for we were finding bones and fragments wherever there were fossiliferous strata of that age.

Although Andrews' storytelling skills are vivid, his account of the quicksand is a bit too much like the Hollywood movie version, rather than one based on reality. Fake quicksand in movies sucks the victim down in minutes until he or she is completely submerged. Real quicksand is a slurry of sand and water that remains fairly firm and solid until you disturb it. Then the water between the sand grains is mobilized, and it becomes what is known as a fluidized sedimentary flow. The disturbed water from the pores between the sand grains pushes the sand grains apart so they flow freely, and you can sink down into the slurry. When you stop moving and disturbing the grains, the water also stops moving, and the entire mixture solidifies like concrete—unless you thrash around again and liquefy the mixture. Because a mixture of sand and water is actually denser than water alone, any body (human or animal) will float until it reaches its point of neutral buoyancy. Thus, it is impossible to sink into quicksand above your head. Even if you thrash around in a panic and keep it liquefied so you sink as low as possible, you will still float at the top even higher than you would float in water alone.

The real problem with quicksand is that it is sticky and holds your limbs down so you can't get out easily, and the more you struggle, the deeper you sink until finally you are floating at your point of neutral buoyancy. People or animals trapped in quicksand do not die because they sink down below their head, but because they become exhausted and thirsty since they cannot pull themselves out and remain trapped until they die. If you grab a branch or a rope or any other firm anchor outside the quicksand, you can pull yourself out quite easily—but most creatures trapped in quicksand have no way to pull themselves out. If you should ever become trapped yourself, the best advice is to try to lie flat in it as you would when you float in water and pull yourself out with a stick or rope or any other form of anchoring.

In the case of this trapped indricothere rhino, it probably was mired down to its legs (as they found it), but the rest of the body would not have sank much deeper. Contrary to what Andrews wrote, it would not have toppled sideways if it were half-buried, since the quicksand was thick and stiff enough to trap its legs in an upright pose without allowing the body to lean sideways, let alone escape from it. Instead, with its legs trapped, the indricothere died either of starvation or by being eaten or scavenged by predators taking advantage of the helpless creature. Once it became trapped and could no longer struggle to liquefy the sand, its exposed upper body was easy pickings for predators and scavengers, which is why none of its other bones were there.

Quicksand can be tricky. I've seen a caravan of four-wheel-drive trucks reach a sandy wash where the first vehicle drove across easily. However, its weight disturbed the water and fluidized the saturated sand on the creek bottom, so that when the second truck rolled over it, the sand was mobilized, and the second vehicle sank in to its axles. It became really stuck, requiring trucks on both sides with tow cables and winches to pull it out—after everyone had dug out its wheels with a shovel.

The Real "Indiana Jones"?

Roy Chapman Andrews himself (Fig. 1.3) was a flamboyant and colorful character. One of the last classical "scientific explorers" who was not a scientist with a doctorate in a particular specialty, Andrews' gift was in raising funds, in leading and organizing trips, and in conveying the excitement of his many exploits to the general public through his popular books and lectures (which further aided in fund-raising). He was a bold and fearless leader. There are several instances of Andrews scaring off Mongolian bandits by shooting first before they could draw their weapons (and occasionally using guns to intimidate corrupt border guards or greedy officials). In one incident, he charged the bandits with his car, shooting as he approached, causing the bandits' horses to spook, and forcing them to flee. Many people consider him the model of the "Indiana Jones" character played in the popular movie series by actor Harrison Ford, although neither George Lucas, nor Stephen Spielberg, nor anyone else connected with the films has ever confirmed this.

Born in Beloit, Wisconsin, in 1884, Andrews taught himself marksmanship and taxidermy and earned a degree from Beloit College (paid for by his earnings from taxidermy). When he talked his way into the American Museum Director's office and asked to work as a taxidermist, he was told there were no openings, so he started as a janitor. While mopping floors, he also earned his master's degree in mammalogy at Columbia University. In 1909 and 1910, he sailed on the U.S.S. Albatross in the East Indies, where he collected lizards and snakes and studied mammals. In 1913, he was on the crew of the schooner Adventuress in the Arctic, where they hoped to obtain a bowhead whale specimen. In that effort they failed, but he filmed some of the best footage of seals ever captured. In 1916 and 1917, Andrews led the American Museum's Asiatic Zoological Expedition through western and southern Yunnan Province in China, where he collected many specimens and developed valuable skills and contacts in Asia.

By 1920, he was planning the first of several American Museum expeditions to Mongolia. The first was completed in 1922, merely as a short exploratory trip to find out if there were fossils at all. The expeditions were so successful that there were trips in 1923, 1925, 1928, 1929, and 1930. Almost immediately after they arrived in Mongolia, they were finding fossils, and by their second expedition in 1923, they were finding spectacular dinosaur bones and the first known dinosaur eggs. This made the expeditions world famous and helped raise funding for three additional expeditions. They found not only dinosaurs, but also the first good specimens of tiny mammals from the Age of Dinosaurs.

But by the time of the last expedition, the political situation in Mongolia had deteriorated so badly that no further expeditions were possible. To make matters worse, Andrews and the American Museum had blundered when they auctioned off one of the Mongolian dinosaur eggs as a fundraising gimmick in the winter of 1923–1924. The highest bidder, Col. Austin Colgate, founder of Colgate University, donated it to the Colgate College museum. The auction made the Mongolians angry that their fossils had been plundered, were taken from the country, and were now being sold off at a great price.

By the 1930s, Andrews' ability to mount great expeditions to Asia had ended. The Great Depression made it impossible to raise funds to mount another trip, since many of the formerly rich Museum donors had lost their fortunes in 1929 and 1930, and some of the Museum's investments had become nearly worthless as well. By 1932, the Museum was so strapped for funds that it canceled all fieldwork entirely and cut its staff to the bone. In addition, the tensions between China and Japan were rising as the Japanese prepared to invade China and other parts of Asia.

Andrews spent much of his time in the 1930s writing books about his exploits, being designated one of the first "Honorary Boy Scouts," and serving as President of the Explorers' Club (1931–1934). In 1935, Andrews was appointed Museum Director, but he was unable to do much to help the Museum during the depths of the Depression. Despite his great skills in organizing expeditions and raising money for them, he proved to be so inept at running the Museum that in 1941 the Trustees replaced him. It took two more directors, plus the end of the Depression, for the Museum to recover its strength. Meanwhile, Andrews retired to Carmel-by-the-Sea, where he lived out the rest of his life writing popular books until his death in 1960 at the age of 76.

Osborn and Granger

The other two main figures (and interesting characters) in the American Museum's Central Asiatic Expeditions of the 1920s were Walter Granger (Figs. 1.2, 1.4B) and Henry Fairfield Osborn (Fig. 1.4A). Granger was the main field paleontologist on all the expeditions, and there could not have been a more competent person assigned to the task. Born in Vermont in 1872, he was one of five children of Civil War veteran and insurance agent Charles H. Granger. Like Andrews, he developed an early talent for taxidermy. In 1890, when he was only 17 he got a job doing taxidermy at the American Museum. Within a few years, he was on field expeditions to the American West searching for vertebrate fossils with the American Museum paleontologists. After two field seasons (1894 and 1895), his fossil-hunting talents were apparent, and he was transferred to the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1896. Granger discovered the legendary Bone Cabin Quarry near Laramie, Wyoming, in 1897, which he worked for the next eight field seasons. The site yielded thousands of bones representing sixty-four species of dinosaurs, including the mounted skeletons of the big Apatosaurus ("Brontosaurus ") and Stegosaurus currently on display at the Museum today.

After working Bone Cabin Quarry from 1897 to 1906, Granger accompanied Osborn on an expedition to the Eocene-Oligocene Fayûm beds of Egypt in 1907. This was the first American Museum fossil trip outside North America. They made many important discoveries that complemented the discoveries of British Museum paleontologist C. W. Andrews just a few years earlier (see Chapter 2). By this point, Granger was promoted to Assistant Curator and had a flexible schedule that allowed him at least five months in the field every year to find more fossils, while he continued to write two or three scientific papers each year as well. In 1921, he began explorations in China (see Chapter 2), which eventually led to the discovery of "Peking man" in Zhoukoudian caves near Beijing. This work in China laid the foundation for the negotiations to go through China to Mongolia that allowed the 1922 American Museum expedition to succeed. His exploits in Mongolia are discussed later in this chapter. After he finished the expeditions, he was promoted to Curator of Fossil Mammals, which allowed him to continue to work on his many amazing discoveries until his death at age 68 of heart failure. Entirely self-taught, Granger never earned a formal academic degree, though this was rectified in 1932 when he received an honorary doctorate from Middlebury College.

In contrast to the modest and unassuming Walter Granger, who made huge collections and did important research but never promoted himself, there was Henry Fairfield Osborn (Fig. 1.4A). Osborn was born in 1857 in Fairfield, Connecticut, to a wealthy family that was among the elite of New York City. His father, William Henry Osborn, parlayed family wealth and property into a career that eventually made him President of the Illinois Central Railroad, where he built a great fortune. Like many other rich kids, young Henry went to an elite Ivy League school (Princeton), where he fell in love with fossil hunting along with his fellow student William Berryman Scott (who also had a long distinguished career in vertebrate paleontology and collaborated with Osborn many times over the years). In 1877 three ambitious young undergrads (Osborn, Scott, and Francis Speir, Jr.) decided to test their mettle and organized their own "Princeton Scientific Expedition" out in the still unexplored badlands of the West. This was no typical undergraduate field trip, since the area was still overrun by hostile Cheyenne and Lakotas, just one year after the slaughter of Custer's troops at Little Bighorn. A photograph taken of the three of them shows them armed to the teeth. Yet these three brave (or foolhardy) students made a number of important discoveries and returned safely with their scalps intact.

After graduating from Princeton, Osborn traveled and studied in Europe to learn from the leading scientists of the time in Germany, England, and France, and even got to meet Charles Darwin and to shake his hand. (When I was a grad student at the American Museum-Columbia program from 1976 to 1982, I got to shake hands with Edwin Colbert, who had shaken Osborn's hand many times, so I'm only three degrees of separation from Darwin.) After his return from Europe in 1883, Osborn taught at Princeton. In 1891 he was hired jointly by the American Museum and Columbia University, where he set up the program that trained some of the foremost vertebrate paleontologists in the world for a full century. In 1908, he became the American Museum President, serving until 1933. More than anyone before or since, Osborn was responsible for building up the museum's exhibits and collections and buildings and for making it one of the foremost natural history museums in the world. During this time, Osborn was also Chair of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology and made that collection and program the largest and most important in the United States.


Excerpted from Rhinoceros Giants by Donald R. Prothero. Copyright © 2013 Donald R. Prothero. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Recipient of the 2013 James Shea Award of the National Association of Geology Teachers for outstanding writing and editing in the geosciences.

Donald R. Prothero is Emeritus Professor of Geology at Occidental College and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology. He has published 32 books, including Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (IU Press, 2013); Earth: Portrait of a Planet; The Evolution of Earth; Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters; Catastrophes!; and After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals (IU Press, 2006).

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