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Baluchitherium: The largest land mammal


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Although humans emerged after a long time of Baluchitherium, but this artist's imagination compares humans with Baluchitherium. – Photo courtesy Asim Mirza

After the dramatic extinction of the dinosaurs, the bones of the largest land mammal were discovered in 1910 by English paleontologist Sir Clive Forster Cooper.

In Balochistan, Cooper discovered bones of extra ordinary size. He suggested that the mammal was the size of a dinosaur and named it as Baluchitherium or ‘the beast of Balochistan’. But for almost a century, the creature remained an enigma because no further investigation was carried out.

In the early 1990s, eminent French paleontologist Jean-Loup Welcomme set out on a journey towards Balochistan in order to find the fossils of the mysterious creature. He followed the footsteps of Cooper and finally discovered that Dera Bugti was the place where Cooper had first unearthed the bones of Baluchitherium. Welcomme came to Pakistan under a project named, "Mission Paleontologique Française au Balochistan". Pakistan Museum of Natural History was another stakeholder in that project.

Welcomme contacted Nawab Akber Khan Bugti and told him the story of that spectacular discovery. Bugti not only gave him the permission for further excavations but helped him with every day needs and workers. In 1997, Welcomme discovered the first finger of the Baluchitherium in a stony valley near Dera Bugti.

After a long busy day of excavation, Welcomme with the Bugti tribesmen. – Photo courtesy Jean-Loup Welcomme

The giant of the hidden valley

After the first clue, Welcomme and other mammalian experts unearthed an array of amazing fossils. The team discovered uncountable fossils in a mere 200 square meter area, which could be considered the best exposed bone-beds on Earth. They found many remains of male and female Baluchitherium simply lying on the ground, which was a quite rare event in paleontological findings. Perhaps the massive creatures were swept away by a river and had accumulated on the banks. Scientists also found traces of crocodile’s teeth on bones which suggested that the Baluchitherium was also a common prey of crocodiles.

In 2003, the French team carefully examined every major and minor bone and finally put them in proper place, building a composite skeleton of the Baluchitherium. The skeleton suggested that the giant creature was five-meters tall and weighed 20 tonnes, almost as massive as the size of three large elephants!

Scientists got the rough idea of the Baluchitherium’s height by examining its bones. But defining the mass of any extinct mammal is a tricky job. Teeth and especially bones are very helpful to identify the mass of any mammal. Over decades of investigations, scientists have devised many techniques to find the mass of a mammal by looking at the length and diameter of its bones. These methods can be successfully applied to assess the bone-mass relation of the mammals.

In the geological time scale, Baluchitherium roamed Asia in Oligocene epoch or 30 millions years ago. According to plate tectonics, some 200 million years ago, the sub-continent was locked – it was a part of the great Gondwanaland which comprised South-America, Africa, Sub-Continent and Australia.

This block had been dismantled into parts and slowly moved towards Asia. 55 million years ago, one part of the Indian plate hit the Asian plate and 43 million years ago the contact between the two was complete. This collision brought about the Great Himalayan Mountains. The Indian-Asian plate collision changed the whole climate of the region.

Heavy rains and erosion turned Balochistan into a lush green rainforest like today’s Amazon. The conditions were suitable for a hornless rhinoceros or Baluchitherium to flourish. The lush forest provided enough vegetation for the bulk-eater mammal to survive. Baluchitherium lived for 11 million years, nearly 35 to 24 million years ago.

After working on the Baluchitherium, Welcomme tried to uncover the entire environment it shared. The team discovered the diversified fossils of fish, turtles, crocodiles, rodents and other small mammals. He studied 40 sites that described 12 distinct levels of different geological ages. He also discovered prehistoric trees, flowers and leaves.

Amazingly, the team found shark teeth, fish and shells which suggested that around 32 million years ago an epicontinental sea had appeared in the heart of Balochistan, which was a rare phenomenon.

Is Balochistan a cradle for humanity?

Prehistoric Balochistan can also be considered an exact place of migration of mammals coming from South East Asia on the road to Africa or Europe. Simply put, it could be called a cross road for African mammals. Amazing fossils of ancestors of elephants and lemurs also discovered in Balochistan, strengthened the hypothesis that many animal groups have Asian origins. We can assume that this place was an evolutionary highway for the kin of today’s many advanced animals. Surprisingly the French team discovered some 20,000 fossils of mammals only from and around the areas of Dera Bugti.

Two important discoveries are worth mention here, one is the mystery of lemur. Bug-eyed and slow moving lemurs now only live on the island of Madagascar. Before 2001, scientists had believed that only Africa was the birthplace of lemurs. But a lemur fossil discovered in Pakistan changed the paleontology text books.

Laurent Marivaux, another French expert discovered a 30 million-year-old fossil of a lemur from Balochistan. Dubbed as Bugtilemur Mathesoni, it is now the oldest fossil of lemur found anywhere on the planet. Bugtilemur triggered a new debate among scientists that lemurs may have Asian rather than African roots.

The details of that discovery were published in the prestigious research journal, “Science”, in which Marivaux said, “The discovery was totally unexpected and the time has come for the Asian scenario to receive more serious attention.”

Gifted writer, Nigel Calder, wrote in his book; “By the boldest interpretations of genetic geography, modern humans may have emerged in South-central Asia- perhaps somewhere east or southeast of the Caspian Sea on the Kazakhstan-Balochistan axis-because that is where the indigenous populations are most “intermediate” between genetic extremes of Africa, Australia, and the Americas.” Time Scale: page 58
The evidence of the above statement came from other finding of Jean Loup Welcomme. He discovered another fossil valley called “Paali” in Balochistan.

French team sifting the hot sand in search of fossil gems at Paali site in Balochistan. – Photo courtesy Jean-Loup Welcomme

On a very hot day in Paali, he filled his clear plastic bags with sand. Back to the small lab in a Dera Bugti guest house, he washed and screened the sand and was surprised that the grains were so little that the screen was empty except for some dark grains. But, later, under the microscope, he realised that those grains were in fact the teeth of small-sized mammals which had remained well preserved. Among them was a tooth of a primate!

Thus Paali became a window to our own group – Anthropoid Primates. Afterward, more teeth of primates discovered from the same site suggested that Balochistan could be the motherland of all animal groups including humans. But further excavation is needed to find more astonishing results because scientists have been screening other areas for decades but only five per cent of Dera Bugti  searched so far. It is important to unearth Balochistan’s paleontology scenario, because its open fossil beds are ready to reveal the treasure to the whole world. For instance, only Paali area holds the secret of more than 10 million years of ancient life on the planet.

Why did the Baluchitherium become extinct?

The answer lies in the same conditions which developed a stage for Baluchitherium to flourish. Some 22 million years ago, the movements of Asia and Africa destroyed the most important prehistoric sea, the “Tethys”. The disappearance of the sea gradually changed the climate of Asia. Balochistan turned into stony desert from a green valley. The vegetation disappeared and Baluchitherium became extinct in the battle of survival.

Fortunately, Nawab Akber Khan Bugti kept the Baluchitherium bones in 10 metallic containers. After he was killed, the fossils were recovered and sent to the museum of the Geological Survey of Pakistan and still remain there.

Pakistan is an ‘El Dorado’ for fossil hunters. However, serious attention is also required to highlight the discoveries from Pakistan. It has been a decade since the complete skeleton of the largest land mammal was discovered from Pakistan. Beautiful series of postal tickets could be issued or the Baluchitherium could be declared the symbol of Balochistan.

One-tenth scale fiber glass model of Baluchitherium. – Photo courtesy Asim Mirza

A veteran artist, Asim Mirza, beautifully carved a one-tenth scale model of the Baluchitherium. He also invited Jean Loup Welcomme to see how it looked.

When Welcomme first saw the fiber glass model, he was amazed to see the authenticity of the prehistoric giant. By his own resources, Mirza has also been working on a life model of Baluchitherium for the past five years and is now on the verge of completing it.

Fortunately, Jean Loup Welcomme will again visit Pakistan in Spring 2011, to work on a joint project with the Sindh University.

Comments (56) Closed

Imran Dec 20, 2010 05:03pm
WOOWW !!! Awesome Work...
Wasif Malik Dec 20, 2010 07:23pm
Dear Suhail Yusuf Thanks much for this excellent information on the history of Dinosaurs and other mammals in Baluchistan. My son wants to be a paleontologis and I was just telling him the other day to plan a trip to Baluchistan and try to dig out some fossils. We live in Texas, USA. Your posting has provided extremely valuable information and I am sure he will appreciate it. Any hints or tips for him will be appreciated. Regards.
ansariwn Dec 20, 2010 08:45pm
Great story! People in Pakistan should highlight such findings.
Bob Dec 20, 2010 09:31pm
I only knew one of many many things written here. This is truly amazing, knowing that I am from Baluchistan.
Salman Dec 20, 2010 09:58pm
This is the first i have heard of this wonderful discovery. Can the writer please provide more details on the team and any future plans.
Zafar Malik Dec 20, 2010 10:00pm
Good Job Suhail Yusuf and Asim Mirza. From Pakicetus, which was an intermediary stage in the evolution of dolphins from a landlivng mamal to Bluchitherium, the largest mamal which ever lived, Pakistan has a lot to offer in the field of Paleontology. In the Salt Range of Punjab, hundreds of miles from sea, one can pickup fossils of marie animals lying on surface. I wish more people in Pakistan had the scientific curiosity so common in other countries.
idrees Dec 20, 2010 10:52pm
wow...they need pakistan government support..
Kamran Dec 20, 2010 10:54pm
Excellent research. Are there Pakistani scientists involved in research and discovery of such a great extent on their own soil?
Chandio Dec 20, 2010 11:12pm
Very informative and great job all in all. Keep it up.
James Dec 20, 2010 11:17pm
delighted that Pakistanis accept the existence of creatures from 30 million years ago, and of ancestors of modern humans from those times. The veracity of evolution is being accepted by the enlightened of Pakistan. Congratulations.
Fahad Dec 20, 2010 11:37pm
gr8 achievement... it makes us proud that Balochistan is a part of Pakistan...
ahmed Dec 21, 2010 12:00am
Pakistan has a rich history, its may be a nascent nation-state but the region has had broad contribution and deep roots to to the development of civilization. Pakistan as a nation-state cannot be written off as doomsayer say. it will emerge stronger INSHALLAH.
Umair Baloch Dec 21, 2010 12:30am
Ahh , that was so interesting and i was surprised , Because i did not expected such a case in my Land- Balochistan. I thank to the Archealogists who came here and did there research and investigation. With in this i also suggest u please carry on your such activities here in Balochistan, and the Local people including me , we all are ready to give u any kind of help and support
Asif Dec 21, 2010 01:21am
great info you shared. thanks
Dr. Inam Dec 21, 2010 02:10am
A very well written article by Sohail Yousuf. The originals fossil specimens should have been the property of the country where they were found. Why they ended up in France, American and British museums of natural history???
Adnan Dec 21, 2010 04:13am
we have to protect this as our national hertitage!
Husein Dec 21, 2010 09:33am
That guy said it all ...
Balochitherium Dec 21, 2010 09:44am
Yeh right they are finding us!! after 20 million years humans are so lazy!
Talha Dec 21, 2010 10:12am
We should welcome investment in this sector.. I am sure it will attract tourist and shall help in developing Balochistan as a hub for scientific research and development. Further I beg the government to wake-up and have some mercy. Please dont let the oppurtunity go and think for your people's sake..
Salman Sheikh Dec 21, 2010 10:43am
In addition to the above findings, we also need to highlight that Pakistan is the place where whales once grazed the land. 50 million years ago Quadrapods were grazing in modern day Pakistan and these quadrapods went from Titus sea towards Arabian sea.
Naeem Javid Dec 21, 2010 11:23am
A very edifying article .................. Indeed Baluchistan land is affluent in natural resources not only with the Geological aspects but also with Cultural and Historical aspects. As aforesaid that this region is, probably, the site of first human civilizations. A little research in the regions can yield much more results.
Syed Ali Dec 21, 2010 12:49pm
Very informative article by Sohail Yusuf,opens new avenues for a visionary breakthrough of our country's rich history.Mr Welcome and his team deesrve our deepest appreciation for their deligent efforts to explore our land holding treasures like these. I wonder if similar exploration for fossils of marine habitat have been conducted in Sawan area of Khairpur where these were evident sometimes at surface levels also.
Logo Design Dec 21, 2010 01:13pm
Wow i never know about it before thanks for share this informative post i like to share this post with my friends.
Qamar Niazi Dec 21, 2010 01:26pm
I am very wonder when I see dawn website I am daily user of your website.When saw the pic i thougth the mamal is live but when go to detail news i am so wonder.Now this is very informative information for our children and very improtant things for our country.Than you Dawn and Asim Miraza and specially Jean Loup Welcomme.
Erum Dec 21, 2010 02:06pm
Excellent article, thank you Dawn for doing a report on this. Please do more of the same!
Rabia Basri Dec 21, 2010 02:34pm
Very very very nice and informative story....
Maryam Dec 21, 2010 03:23pm
Interesting information!
Ashok Sharma Dec 21, 2010 04:33pm
No offences but what is the connection of finding a fossil in Baluchistan and bieng proud for the Baluchistan to be part of Pakistan? But yeah, this is a great find though.
Ashok Sharma Dec 21, 2010 04:36pm
This pretty much shows that there is a potential of few more great discovries. Government of Pakistan should support it with Pakistani Scientist being part of the great search. The same should be put out for public to see, understand and appreciate.
Abhimanyu (India) Dec 21, 2010 04:44pm
When I saw the first snap (artist's imagination), I was wondering how the beast was rendered so realistically. Then I saw the fiber glass model below. It looks good. Nice informative article btw..
Shahid.A.Siddiqui Dec 21, 2010 05:12pm
Dear Sohail, I read glad it your article about Dinosaurs and Largest mammal skeletal discover in Pakistan, all Pakistan responsibility to highlight this story, Dinosaurs are a diverse and varied group of animals; birds, at over 9,000 species, are the most diverse group of vertebrate besides perciform fish. Paleontologists have identified over 500 distinct genera and more than 1,000 different species of non-avian dinosaurs.
Anilkhan Dec 21, 2010 05:43pm
kat Dec 21, 2010 06:52pm
This was a great read. I'm not normally too interested in such findings, but this article managed to keep all my attention. Really well written. Thank you, Suhail Yusuf, for sharing such a fine piece of work with us. I look forward to reading more of your work!
Suhail Yusuf Dec 21, 2010 06:59pm
Dear Wasif Malik, Thank you so much for your appreciation. It is so great that your child want to be a paleontologist. He should know the basic concept of geology, plate tectonics, fossilization, and yes a visit to any Paleontological sites in US. Dorling Kindersley's books will give him a good start to grab the concepts of biology, zoology, earth sciences and paleontology. I wish him all the best because it is a mesmerizing subject.
Suhail Yusuf Dec 21, 2010 07:06pm
Experts from Natural History Museum, Islamabad, Geological Survey of Pakistan were also involved in that expedition,
Suhail Yusuf Dec 21, 2010 07:08pm
Balochistan is Pakistan, and Pakistan is Balochistan.
Suhail Yusuf Dec 21, 2010 07:17pm
The original specimen can be seen in geological survey of Pakistan's museum in Quetta.
Suhail Yusuf Dec 21, 2010 07:30pm
Thank You, we all Pakistani need that spirit. Pakistan is second to none.
Manzoor Panhwer Dec 21, 2010 11:33pm
Good Job Suhail Yusuf and Asim Mirza. I am extremely happy to know all about this. We are rich in all kind of resources; only our govt have to be sincere and honest. You have uncovered great knowledge. Lets see now. Hope to do more work on it.
umar Dec 22, 2010 12:07am
Ashok, the thing to be proud is that this largest mammal was found in Baluchistan which is a part of pakistan. It is something to be proud of that a part of pakistan has offered such rich and enticing clues to the fields of science and paleontology. Why are u having a problem with a pakistani being proud of his country??
HM Dec 22, 2010 02:16am
One of the best story read in recent times....Thank you
v Dec 22, 2010 10:14am
Pakistan has to discover and protect its treasures.... The country has so much potential... Could you imagine the tourists who would flock to the museums or scholars who would come, study here and teach the locals. It is not just the fossils, there is wealth of history... building sites, forts... and of course the natural resources which would turn Pakistan into a 1st world country. Leadership, vision and a sense of national pride is needed... the country and its people have to be a priority. The politicians are too busy serving themselves and only thinking of themselves. It is our collective misfortune that the same cheats are re-elected over and over again. Things change through evolution or revolution. I hope a peaceful way can be found.... The fossil discovery is a great start.. have to start somewhere....
Albaloshi Dec 22, 2010 01:53pm
Wow... I am so excited to know that our homeland Balochistan is a gift for us and offere us alot. And this is another one.... Love YOu Balochistan....
Indraneil Dec 22, 2010 01:55pm
Great news! Hope other excavations will be done!
Qadeer Baloch Dec 22, 2010 02:00pm
Great job by the both pakistani and french expidetors. The expedition should be spread in other areas of Balochistan.
Babulal Jethwa Dec 22, 2010 03:45pm
This is excellent artwork and a genius story well done Asim Mirza
Muhammad Asif Ghumra Dec 23, 2010 07:07am
Very well written and informative article. Surely it is good to know that Pakistani scientists are also involved. I hope they also get recognition in international publications
Ro Ro Rasputin Dec 24, 2010 12:43pm
I notice an interesting sentence in the article "According to plate tectonics, some 200 million years ago, the sub-continent was locked – it was a part of the great Gondwanaland which comprised South-America, Africa, Sub-Continent and Australia" Sub-continent? Which sub-continent? Oh, won't our ego be affected if we call it what the whole world calls it - The Indian Sub-continent'?
Keshav Dec 24, 2010 02:59pm
This is a very well written article and shows Balochistan in a new light. To think that this part of the world is probably the birthplace of such a wide variety of fauna is an incredible idea and needs more research to validate it. The silt deposited in the delta of Indus can be investigated for remains of flora and fauna spanning aeons.
Hena Dec 25, 2010 03:14am
Great information. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Pakistan can, for a change be a place with great treasures. We merely underestimate ourselves and our resources as well. Its a shame that we do, and we shouldn't. A well written article.
Zain Dec 25, 2010 11:25pm
This article is an affirmation to the fact that Pakistan has alot to offer to the rest of the world, provided that rest of the world cooperates with us thru science and education. Also, if you travel thrut the newly built Coastal Highway, you will be stunned by the natural views, The landscape is extremely out of this world. The grand Canyons of US look tiny compared to the majestic views of the Coastal areas. There is this Natural Statue called "Princess of Hope" that carved out naturally into a mountain and resemble an hourglass female figure. Also the mountains have layers of geological formations, waiting to be discovered and reveal the tons of scientific information.
Syed Jamal Dec 26, 2010 11:40am
HI Sohel: My son is 7 and he also wants to do paleontolgy. He is already nearly an expert on dinosaurs. We live in Kansas, US. I will tell him about baluchistan.
Abhijit Dec 26, 2010 05:32pm
That was amazing. More excavations are needed here. I know, Baloch region is less dense and give more chances and hopes to the palaeontologists.
Asad Masood Dec 28, 2010 10:31am
Great article Suhail on the Baluchitherium, very well done indeed. However the part on Baluchistan being the cradle of humanity needs some clarification. Nigel Calder’s book, “Timescale: Atlas of the Fourth Dimension”, was published in 1983 and his assertion that “…modern humans may have emerged in South-central Asia- perhaps somewhere east or southeast of the Caspian Sea on the Kazakhstan-Balochistan….” is based on hypothesis rather than scientific fact. One cannot possibly find an evidence for this statement from Jean Loup Welcomme’s research in Paali since the 1990s. Welcomme found teeth of small-sized primates which were later tentatively classified as Bugtilemurs (and hence of the same sub-order and family as lemurs). Now to link the 30 million year old fossil of Bugtilemur to Anthropoid Primates (i.e. monkeys, apes, Homo sapiens) is a stretch. Let us see how. The order ‘Primates’ contains two of the sub-orders prosimians (also known as lower primates and include lemurs, tarsiers) and simians (monkeys, apes, Homo sapiens – known as higher primates). True that the Bugtilemur would be the oldest lemur fossil and the only kind of lemur (extinct or living) that has been found outside of Madagascar and has significantly complicated the evolution of diversification of lemurs, but one cannot link lemurs to anthropoid primates (i.e. monkeys, apes and humans). Lemurs often are confused with ancestral primates, but the anthropoid primates did not evolve from them; instead, lemurs merely share morphological and behavioral traits with earlier primates. Lemurs arrived in Madagascar around 62 to 65 million years ago by rafting on mats of vegetation at a time when ocean currents favored oceanic dispersal to the island and have evolved independently in isolation in Madagascar. Once part of the supercontinent Gondwana, the island of Madagascar has been isolated since it broke away from eastern Africa (160 mya) and India (80–90 mya). Anthropology backed up by DNA analysis has shown that apes diverged from the Old World monkeys between 29 million and 34.5 million years ago. The lesser and greater apes split about 18 million years ago (mya), and the hominid splits happened 14 mya, 7 mya (Gorilla), and 3-5 mya (Homo & Pan). Almost all of the oldest bones of human ancestors including the Homonidae subfamily and its species such as Homo habilis, Homo afrisansis, Homo erectus have been found in Africa, therefore it is beyond any dispute amongst anthropologists that humans evolved from apes in Africa and then migrated to Asia and rest of the world.
geologist Dec 28, 2010 10:44am
great this should b highlighted............ n all you people living in quetta go n watch it standing in the museum.. a visit to baluchistan should be made compulsary for geology/paleo students like trip to salt range is..... praying hard tht things in baluchistan gets back to normal..n people n the province will prosper....Ameen
THEleoKHAN Jun 27, 2012 01:21pm
Wow that's great.All people living in Pakistan should be proud of be a Pakistani.