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Locality: Private land in Pennington County, South Dakota
Age: Late Eocene Period, Chadronian, 35 Million Years Ago
Read below pictures for information about this specimen and the area it was found.
Titanotheres and Brontotheres
During the Eocene, brontotheres represented the largest mammals found in North America. Brontotheres were large robust animals, with the last forms reaching 14 ft in length and 8 ft at the shoulder. The body appeared to have the form of a rhinoceros but with more elephant-like legs and feet. The head is large and stocky with small eyes located to the front of the head and ears far in the back. The teeth are large and blocky, some of which reach a diameter of 4 inches and possess advanced adaptations for crushing and grinding plant material. Skulls of later genera often possessed large bifurcated horns on their nose, with a great variety of different shapes and sizes present in different specimens.
Fossil brontotheres are commonly found in the White River beds of the western U.S., but usually are represented only as fragmented teeth or bones. Recorded initially from the Wassatchian NALMA of the early Eocene as small, dog-sized mammals, the last forms from the Chadronian NALMA of the latest Eocene were the size of medium-sized elephants. Remains of large forms from the Chadronian NALMA are the most commonly found and the three genera currently recognized from this time period, each with several species, include Megacerops coloradensis, curtus, kuwagatarhinus, and platyceras; Menops variens, crassicornis, serotinus, trigonoceras and walcotii; and Brontops robustus, amplus, bicornutus, brachycephalus, dispar, selwynianus and tyleri . Early genera such as Titanotherium and Bronotherium are now considered synonyms of the above taxa. Many of these species are recognized by variations in horn, tooth and skull structure. Titanotheres also show sexual dimorphism, primarily in the form of larger skull and horn sizes in males.
Early paleontologists discovered gradual changes in the skulls of brontotheres found at different levels, with horn cores generally becoming longer and larger, incisors generally decreasing in number, and nasal canals tending to shorten as the formations approached the end of the Eocene. In some of the youngest beds, skulls lack all incisors, possibly as an adaptation allowing for a more prehensile lip.
The life of brontotheres is still inconclusive, with many species, and especially the last forms, being compared to modern rhinoceroses. Others feel that consideration should be given to brontotheres being a late Eocene ecomorph of the African elephant. If African elephants can be described as very large browsers replete with tusks that function during feeding and fighting conspecifics, they compare well with brontotheres of the late Eocene. Both families evolved from unremarkable ancestors the size of pigs or tapirs, with little indication of their final form. During their evolution, however, both groups grew to gigantic proportions, the varying shaped horns of the final genera of brontotheres, Megacerops, Menops and Brontops, having large nasal horns which appear to be used primarily in conflict with other males. Final forms developed structures on their noses that became spectacular bifurcated structures. Most speculate that these horns were used primarily for intra-specific combat, with contemporary species using their horns in different means of attack: frontal, lateral and as locking mechanisms much as co-existing bovids fight intra-specifically in widely differing fashions depending on the nature of their horns.
Brontothere dentition strongly suggests they were obligate browsers, just as some populations of African elephants are. Often compared to rhinoceroses, later brontotheres are far larger than heterospecific rhinoceroses like the browsing Subhyracodon that co-existed with them during the late Eocene. Modern elephants of Africa do or did co-exist with two species of rhinoceros and in Asia, the same could be said until recently about Asian elephants and any of three species of rhinoceros that do or did co-exist with them. In essence, brontotheres are best described as being very large browser-grazers which do or did inhabit both forest and open woodland habitats.
Brontotheres are thought to have preferred warm temperate to subtropical environments in habitats that ranged from closed forests to relatively open river-marginal woodlands. All three of the final genera have been recorded in northern Colorado, western Nebraska, eastern Wyoming, the badlands of South Dakota, and northward into Saskatchewan. The fact that all three have been found in geographical proximity to each other suggests each genus utilized a distinct niche, perhaps one defined by vegetation type or foliage density, a niche that allowed all three genera and their respective species to co-exist ecologically. Although it is thought that a general cooling and then drying trend throughout their range is largely responsible for their disappearance, more complex factors such as the continued reduction of forest cover and the resultant loss of preferred foods may also have been involved. Regardless, titanotheres disappeared as their forest habitat also disappeared, unable to adapt to the opening habitat as the smaller rhinoceroses did. Brontotheres are only recorded from the Eocene epoch and all forms disappeared at the end of the Chadronian. Once gone, this niche was not immediately filled by a very large browsing ungulate, and would remain vacant in North America for 12 million years until the arrival of proboscidians during the late Miocene epoch.
Written by Alan Shoemaker
The White River Badlands
The White River Badlands has been the site of much interest for paleontologists since the mid-1800's. During these early explorations, scientists began finding fossil remains of many large mammals. These interesting discoveries soon attracted prominent paleontologists, such as the famous Dr Joseph Leidy and Prof O. C. Marsh to visit there and conduct more detailed studies. It soon became clear that this area represented a unique area of great scientific value and many museums and universities surged forward to explore these strata as well as to collect fossils from them. Numerous publications were produced discussing these discoveries. Unfortunately most of the publications were very specific to particular discoveries or sites and failed to give a broad picture of this region. It wasn't until 1920 that Cleophas O'Harra of the South Dakota School of Mines published a book on the White River Badlands, the sole purpose of which was to shed light on the area. Sadly, today there remain few useful references beyond this book, which is now over 90 years old.
Times have changed. It is time to develop a website showing new fossil discoveries, clear color photographs of specimens, updated taxonomy, fossil preparation techniques and advice from active collectors and dealers who can introduce people to the and the fossils in it.
Written by Ryan Courtney
Geography of the White River Badlands
The White River Badlands is a collection of irregularly shaped, highly eroded areas that extends from the southwestern portion of South Dakota through parts of northwestern Nebraska and eastern Wyoming into eastern Colorado. The drainage pattern of the badlands converges on the White River, hence its name.
The badlands themselves are characterized by harsh rugged peaks and steep gullies, with a variety of brown and tan sedimentary layers that lie fully exposed and often capped by flat areas covered in grasses. Early exploration through this region was tough and finding food and water difficult. The area is, however, quite fertile in places and water can be found in shallow wells. Much of the badlands region is used today for grazing of cattle.
To help us imagine what the Badlands are like, a quote from Prof. O'Harra, describing Sheep Mountain is appropriate.
"Sheep Mountain, the cedar covered top of which overlooks all the surrounding country, presents a view that is hopelessly indescribable. In all directions everything is strange and weird to the extreme. Far away cattle or horses may be seen feeding on levels of green, and here and there distant dots indicate the abodes of happy homesteaders. Immediately about all is still.
Until recently the sharp eye could occasionally detect a remnant bunch of mountain sheep, once numerous, but quickly and quietly they would steal away to the cover among the intricate recesses of the crumbling precipices. Only an occasional eagle screams out a word of curiosity or defiance as he sails majestically across the maze of projecting points and bottomless pits. Magnificent ruins of a great silent city painted in delicate shades of cream and pink and buff and green! Domes, towers and spires decorate gorgeous cathedrals and palaces and present dimensions little dreamed of by the architects of the ancients." What a magical depiction!
Written by Ryan Courtney Quotes from Cleophas C O'Harra
The environment of the Badlands in the Oligocene Paleoclimate of the Oligocene
The climate during the Oligocene was one that is quite different than that of today. By looking at the types of rocks found in these bed and the fossils within them, a picture of the Oligocene paleo-environment begins to reveal itself. The prominence of clays and lenticular sandstones indicates a mature river valley with a relatively flat topography, meandering rivers, punctuated by lakes and swamps. The land may have been covered by small shrub-like vegetation, with perhaps forests in parts. The landscape was populated by a great diversity of animal life, particularly. Mr. O'Harra writes a beautiful description of the life during the Oligocene:
"Here the gently flowing streams push their muddy way through reedy marshlands and vigorous forests and furnish a lazy playground for countless turtles and occasional crocodiles. In favored recesses groups of rhinoceroses may be seen, some heavy of bulk and water loving, others graceful and preferring dry land. Little fleet-footed ancestral horses nibble the grass on the hillsides or trot unhindered across the muddy flats. Here and there we see a group of predaceous dogs and not infrequently do we get a glimpse of a ferocious tiger-like cat. On the higher ridges, six horned herbivores reveal their inquisitive pose, and scamper from the nearing presence of some stealthy foe. But the dominating beast is the titanothere. In great numbers we see his majestic form as he moves among his kin and crops at his leisure the coarse grasses of the lowlands. Here and there are gophers and squirrels busy with their toil and their play, and hedgehogs and moles and swine and deer and tapirs and camels, and many other creatures too strange to mention without definition. To all these animals it was home. Here they fought for food and life and supremacy. To them the sun shone, the showers came, the birds sang, the flowers bloomed, and stately trees gave convenient shade to the rollicking young of many a creature.
But 'everlasting hills' have their day and rivers do not flow forever. One by one, group by group, they died, the bodies of most of them quickly feeding the surrounding elements but a chosen few, tucked away by the kindly hand of nature, remaining as unique monuments of the dawning time of the great mammalian races, are now being revealed as gently by nature again in these days of man."
Such a vibrant description!
Written by Ryan Courtney Quotes from Cleophas C O'Harra
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