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Baluchitherium: A giant from the past

July 14, 2012

The world’s largest land mammal that lived on earth about 23 million years ago was a rhinoceros known as the Baluchitherium — so named because fossils (preserved remains of ancient animals) of this gigantic extinct animal were first found in the Bugti area of Balochistan in 1910 by English paleontologist, Sir Clive Forster Cooper. Fossils of this animal have also been reported in central Asia.

Famous geologist Guy Pilgrim also found fragments of two skulls and several isolated teeth of a large rhinoceros in this area during the first decade of the 20th century. Due to the large size of the incisor teeth, he suggested that the face of the animal must have been elongated. Several cranial and post cranial elements of different sized rhinoceroses including the Baluchitherium were collected from the 23 million-year-old rocks in Bugti hills, north of Sui, Balochistan, by the Geological Survey of Pakistan in the late 20th century.

In 1985 and 1987, a partial skull and nearly complete mandible along with other fossilised bones of a rhinoceros were found in the continental deposits of Bugti hills, also by the Geological Survey of Pakistan. The Pakistan Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the Laboratory of Palaeontology of the University of Montpellier III, France, has been active in the area for some time since the beginning of the 21st century and has collected fossils of different mammals including the fossils of the Baluchitherium.

Baluchitherium is mainly represented by huge vertebrae, foot and limb bones and skull, which indicate that the animal was of enormous size and the largest of all the known land mammals of the world. It reached a height of 5.5 metres to its shoulders, equal to the collective height of about three persons. It had a massive body and long neck which were supported by powerful limbs built like pillars.

The length of the skull was about 1.3 metres, relatively small in proportion to its body size. No horn was present on the head or on the nose of the animal. It normally lived in the dense forest. The long neck of the animal, combined with long frontal legs, enabled it to browse for food on the higher branches of trees.

It is worth mentioning here that the fossils of rhinoceroses have been found in various areas of Pakistan mainly in the 23 million-year-old continental rocks exposed in Bugti Hills, Balochistan; Potwar plateau and Pabbi Hills, Punjab; Gaj and Sehwan areas, Sindh; and areas to the south and south-east of Mirpur, Azad Kashmir. None, however, are as old as that of the Baluchitherium found in the Bugti Hills. Fossils of the Baluchitherium and its reconstruction can be viewed at the Pakistan Museum of Natural History, Islamabad and the Geological Survey of Pakistan, Quetta.

The writer is Deputy Director(R), Geological Survey of Pakistan