I was always a fan of the strange and enormous Baluchitherium, the earth's largest land mammal, also called the 'Beast of Baluchistan', where I first read about it in All About Strange Beasts of the Past by Roy Chapman Andrews and illustrated by Matthew Kalmenoff, ©1956, #17 in the All About Books series.
In the early 1990s, eminent French paleontologist Jean-Loup Welcomme set out on a journey towards Balochistan in order to find the fossils of this mysterious creature. He followed the footsteps of Sir Clive Forster 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.
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 one of 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.
Jean Loup Welcomme and his team lay out a nearly complete Baluchitherium skeleton.
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.
Then, 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 two decades since the complete skeleton of the largest land mammal was discovered in Pakistan.
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.
One-tenth scale fiber glass model of Baluchitherium – Photo courtesy Asim Mirza.
When Welcomme first saw the fiber glass model, he was amazed to see how authentic it is. Using his own resources, Mirza has also been working on a life model of Baluchitherium.
See: View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDk1Ft50bsI
* Gondwanaland was a supercontinent that existed from the Neoproterozoic (about 550 million years ago) and began to break up during the Jurassic (about 180 million years ago), with the opening of the Drake Passage, separating South America and Antarctica occurring during the Eocene.
Map of Gondwanaland.
Every now and then an image or a memory of the Baluchisterium will surface in my memory. And I am reminded that for everything there is a time and a place and for this legendary Beast it lay in the Oligocene, which in turn lay between the Eocene and Miocene epochs.