Posted by: scrubmuncher | August 6, 2010

Elasmotherium and the mysterious case of the massive horn

Elasmotherium was an enigmatic beast of the Eurasian steppe. It’s a long time dead that’s for sure, but tales of this creature or something decidedly like it dwell in the folk memory of the tribes who inhabit central Asia and beyond into the wastes of Siberia. This massive rhino must have been a sight to behold and our ancestors must have clapped eyes on it only to scamper hurriedly in the opposite direction. Like all long-dead beasts we’ll never know for sure exactly how it looked in life. Was it covered in fur or was it distinctly glabrous? Did it have a massive horn or was it simply the owner of a sorry-looking lump? These things we’ll never know, but human imagination being what it is we often paint these extinct animals in a dramatic light. Just do a search online for Elasmotherium and every reconstruction of this powerful pachyderm sports a horn of prodigious proportions even though there is no physical evidence to prove this was actually the case.

Russian palaeontologists have cogitated long and sometimes too hard about how Elasmotherium looked when it was more than just an assortment of dry bones. Some of their reconstructions are below, all of which are taken from a number of vintage and not so vintage Russian text books. The conclusions of these experts on the appearance of Elasmotherium are varied to say the least illustrating just how little we know about the magnificent creatures that once put the wind up our ancestors.

First off, here’s the skull and a skeleton of Elasmotherium.

This was a rhino, of that there’s little doubt, but it was a brute –at least 2.5 m at the shoulder and 6 to 7 tonnes in weight – getting on for elephantine proportions. The skull bears a very distinctive hump and this is what prompted the speculative sprouting of the monstrous horn you seen in almost all reconstructions.

The artist responsible for this reconstruction was convinced the hump underpinned a formidable looking torn:

So was this chap, but his drawing looks like an unwieldy-looking horn has been grafted on to the head of a tapir:

This bloke wasn’t sure if it was covered in shaggy fur or smooth skinned, so to cover these eventualities he’s drawn both, a low-slung head and a horn that has taken on the appearance of a wizard’s hat.

This artist was similarly convinced that Elasmotherium carried its head low, probably due to the great weight of the squat horn.

This chap wasn’t even convinced they had a horn. Instead, he has a reconstructed what looks like a rather rotund animal with a simple hump on its head.

The last drawing doesn’t look as exciting or as frightening as a rhino with a huge horn on its head does it and therein lies the problem with reconstructions. The more outlandish and terrifying the better, regardless of what evidence there is to support the reconstruction.

Read more about Elasmotherium and other beasts that have long since ceased being extant in the book Extinct Animals

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