The Beast of Baluchistan

The Beast of Baluchistan

There were giants in the earth in those days.

—Genesis 6:4

Dinosaurs ruled the earth during the 185 million years of the Mesozoic Era. Some were no larger than a chicken, but others were the size of a barn. A recent specimen unearthed in New Mexico, Seismosaurus, may have reached 140 feet in length and could have weighted almost eighty tons and has probably been outranked by the 1991 discovery of Argentinosaurus in northwest Patagonia. There is no doubt that some species of sauropod dinosaurs were the largest creatures ever to have walked on dry land. But they were reptiles, which spend their lives growing.

What about mammals, which have populated the earth from dinosaur times through the present? Mammals of the Mesozoic hid in the awesome shadow of the great reptiles and remained relatively small. When the earth suffered a collision with an extraterrestrial body, the dinosaurs that remained became extinct. Some mammals undoubtedly lived underground in comparative safety as the huge reptiles thundered overhead. This may have been the reason for mammalian survival after the catastrophic collision. With the demise of the dinosaurs about sixty—five million years ago, the land was hospitable to the development of a mammalian population. Evolution of mammals was quite rapid, and the creatures that evolved would rival dinosaurs in size.

The largest known creature ever to have existed on earth is, astonishingly, found today — the blue, sulfur—bottomed whale. It can reach lengths of over 150 feet and can weigh more than a hundred tons, but it is an aquatic mammal, spending its entire life in the sea. As we imagine the largest mammal that ever walked on land, the elephant or one of its proboscidean (having a trunk) ancestors comes to mind. But the largest land mammal discovered is a rhinoceros that lived in Asia about twenty to thirty million years ago.

In 1911 Sir Clive Foster Cooper, a British scientist, discovered in Baluchistan, now Pakistan, the bones of a gigantic fossil mammal. The bones were scanty, leaving him uncertain as to just what the animal may have looked like. His first conjecture was that it may have been an unknown form of an extinct rhinoceros. To identify its place of discovery, Cooper named his find Baluchitherium, or the "Beast of Baluchistan."

On August 5, 1922, an American expedition to central Asia, under the direction of Roy Chapman Andrews, found more bones of the Asian giant mammal. One of the expedition's drivers found a huge bone in the bottom of a gully. Near it was a partial lower jaw with white teeth "as big as apples." The size of the bones made the entire crew speculate that this was the legendary Beast of Baluchistan. The next day they returned to the gully and excavated hundreds of bone fragments, apparently skull parts, but only the front of the skull contained teeth. An examination of the teeth and bones by the expedition paleontologist led him to conclude that the beast was a giant hornless rhinoceros.

When excavation was complete, they had found and collected the parts of a shattered skull: 365 pieces of skull bone, all from a single specimen. These were sent back to the museum in New York for cleaning and assembling. For several months paleontologists worked on the jigsaw puzzle of fitting the pieces together. The result was the first complete skull of Baluchitherium ever seen by humans. And what a skull! It was four and a half feet long. Even at that size the giant's head was later shown to be small for its immense body.

The second find of Baluchitherium was made when a sharp—eyed member of the same expedition caught the glint of white bone protruding from the yellow desert sand. Excavation revealed the foot and lower leg of the beast. It was standing upright, as if the beast had carelessly left it behind while taking another step;. Fossils are rarely found in a standing position, so the only logical explanation was quicksand!

Assuming this, the scientists estimated that the right foreleg would be about twelve feet ahead. They carefully measured the distance, dug at the predicted location, and uncovered a huge bone resembling the trunk of a fossil tree. Thereafter it was easy to find the two legs on the left side. The huge animal had apparently wandered into the quicksand bed, sinking to the bottom. It must have been completely submerged in the quicksand, or upon death it would have fallen over on its side. Instead, supported by the encasing sand and its huge weight, it remained upright. A few thousand years ago erosion removed the enclosing rock, revealing the part of the skeleton that had not been eroded. The legs, being unexposed, remained in place. One might say this beast has been standing in the same place for the last twenty million years. Talk about cement shoes!

Dr. Andrews later recorded in his diary, "If the skeleton had been discovered a few thousand years earlier, the entire skeleton might have been found standing in place."

In 1928, on a later expedition, parts of another skeleton were found. These remains were of a Baluchitherium that had died on the bank of a swift river. The flesh had decayed, and the skeleton had fallen apart. Some of the smaller bones were larger than a man's body, the upper foreleg bone being four feet long. A man's forearm bone would look like a mere sliver next to it. The men could barely lift it. Truly this was the leg of a giant, as was later proved to be the case.

When the expedition's finds were completely assembled in New York, the Beast of Baluchistan was ascertained to be the largest fossil mammal known to date. From nose to tail it measured at least thirty—five feet; a mature adult stood about eighteen feet high at the shoulder. When it stretched its neck upward, its nose must have been twenty—five feet above the ground, about nine feet higher than the tallest giraffe. A six—foot man standing under the animal could hardly have touched its stomach. The Baluchitherium proved to be a giant hornless rhinoceros. A beast of this size had no need for defensive horns such as those possessed by modern rhinos.

The beast was a browser, eating leaves, twigs, and buds from the treetops. With such high shoulders and so long a neck, it could easily reach into the highest branches. It was basically a peaceful animal. Surely no carnivore would dare attack a healthy adult of such dimensions, but there is no doubt that the herds were stalked by the saber—toothed cats of the day looking for a stray calf or a sick, old adult.

Baluchitherium apparently inhabited only the area of central Asia during the Miocene Epoch, about twenty million years ago. At that time the climate was warm and humid and the land was open plains containing streams, lakes, and lush grass. Although not heavily forested, the area did support a number of trees.

During the middle of the Miocene the collision of the Indian Plate with the Asian Plate caused the Himalayan Mountains to come into existence. These mountains acted like a wall, cutting off the warm moisture—bearing winds and causing the landscape to change. Central Asia dried up, and the trees disappeared. Baluchitherium apparently did not migrate but remained in central Asia despite the change in the basic environment to which it had adjusted. Because the animal had adapted so thoroughly to a warm, moist climate, failure to migrate proved its undoing.

Overspecialization had always been one of the chief natural causes of extinction. Thus with the changes brought on by the tectonic uplift of the Himalayas, the highly specialized group of animals could not adapt to the relatively rapid change in environment. After being on earth for over ten million years the Beast of Baluchistan became extinct.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth