If there is something that fascinates us about animals that lived millions of years ago, it is the ability of some species to grow to colossal sizes. A good example would be the Paraceratherium , an animal with the body of a giant rhinoceros and the neck of a giraffe that reached such enormous sizes that it is the largest land mammal in the history of the Earth.
30 million years ago the indricotherines , ancestors of the hornless rhinos , spread through the forests of Eurasia: from China and Mongolia to the Balkans. The first specimens of this family, dating from the middle Eocene, could hardly exceed a cow in size. But some species evolved considerably larger, and during the Oligocene they definitely became the largest mammals to have walked our planet.
The first scientific clue to this colossal species dates back to the early 20th century, when paleontologist Guy Ellcock Pilgrim of the Geological Survey of India found fossils in southwestern Pakistan. An upper jaw, another jaw fragment, and several lower teeth were the remains from which Ellcock Pilgrim reconstructed a new species that he named Aceratherium : ancestors of the hornless rhinoceros.
Between 1910 and 1913, the English paleontologist Clive Forster-Cooper discovered more fossil remains at Dera Bugti and cataloged them as a different species which he called Paraceratherium , that is, “close to Aceratherium “. In 1916, the Leningrad Paleozoological Institute received the most complete indricoterine skeleton to date. In the absence of the head, the director at the time, Alekséi Alekséievich Borissiak, named it Indricotherium , in reference to Indrik , a monster from Russian folklore: a giant bull with deer legs, a horse’s head and a huge horn on its snout.
Several more researchers still came to baptize each one with a different name to what seemed to be remains of the same species. It must be borne in mind that these events took place in times of World War I , so communication between researchers was not precisely due to WhatsApp .
All these rare names ended up being identified, effectively, as the same species. And when it comes to scientific names, the first one wins (if it’s a western proposal, it seems that it scores points, everything must be said). So the name that the scientific community accepted was Paraceratherium and the others are synonyms that should not be used. The family of these species did inherit the name related to Indrik and that is why today they are known as indricoterines. It is true that the debate about what to call this species continues today.
But what bug is this?
A study on the discovery of new fossil remains was published in the summer of 2021. Yes, we add another little name, this time Paraceratherium linxiaense , since the discovery took place in Linxia, a central region of China. These remains provide more information for the study of the Oligocene , when other colossi such as mastodons or megatheria (giant sloths) inhabited the Earth.
The Paraceratherium lived in Asia and reached Western Europe. It could reach between 21 and 24 tons of weight . Up to the shoulders a height of 5 meters is estimated, to which would be added 2 more meters of the neck and head . In order for us to understand the magnitude of this giant mammal, we must know that the largest elephants today are African and weigh 6 tons on average. On the other hand, the tallest giraffe on record was less than 6 meters tall.
“It has no horn and looks more like a horse than a rhinoceros. Its head can reach a height of seven meters to reach the tops of trees,” said Tao Deng , from the China Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology, who participated in the Linxia excavation. The bones of its face help to think that it must have had a snout ending in a kind of beak or even a small trunk , like the tapirs. As front teeth they only bore two fangs per jaw, but their molars are the size of fists . The muscles and ligaments to support its powerful neck would form a small hump on its back. Legs like columns , in the style of elephants, but more flexible, so it is possible that they could gallop .
Its extinction could be linked to several factors, but it could have greatly influenced the collision of India with Asia . This collision between two continental plates produced the elevation of the Himalayas, in a process that would give rise to a climatic change that turned the forests that Paraceratherium inhabited into grasslands without trees to stretch out their necks to eat.
Deng, T. et all. 2021. An Oligocene giant rhino provides insights into Paraceratherium evolution. Communications Biology 4, 639. DOI: 10.1038/s42003-021-02170-6.