Arsinoitherium: "One of the Pets of Evolution"

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The skull of Arsinoitherium, from A preliminary note on Arsinoitherium zitteli.



As spectacular as the extinct Eocene mammal Arsinoitherium was, many scientists were not all that interested in it. Its size and weapons were certainly impressive, but it appeared to sit on a difficult-to-define side branch of mammalian evolution. This made it a less attractive subject of study than some of its close relatives among the paenungulata, the elephants, whose evolutionary history could be traced in greater detail. As H.R. Knipe wrote in his Evolution in the Past, Arsinoitherium just seemed to be another aberrant form that had reached its evolutionary endpoint and gone extinct.*

*[Recall that during the early 20th century ideas like orthogenesis, racial senescence, and vitalism were popular among paleontologists. This allowed scientists to pay less attention to evolutionary side branches as they were effectively "failed" natural experiments that had parallels in other "successful" groups (rhinos in the case of Arsinoitherium).]

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Arsinoitherium, from Current Literature.
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A creative (or some might say overly imaginative) writer for the magazine Current Literature decided to show Arsinoitherium as more than just another extinct "pachyderm", however. In a rather strange article excerpting Knipe's book there is included a drawing of Arsinoitherium with the caption "One of the Pets of Evolution." It goes on to say that;

The arsinoitherium was a beast of burden, if we infer anything from the fossil, to our hairy, hunting, howling forebears in the northern part of what is now Africa. The creature was gentle, timid, and vegetarian. He was trained to carry human beings, it is suspected.

Other illustrations accompanying the article bear similar captions, each describing the dangers or uses of extinct creatures to humans. They all seem over-the-top so I do not suspect that some creationist was making his objections to Knipe's work known. Regardless of the intent of the captioner, though, we know that there were no humans around to make use of Arsinoitherium during the time it walked the earth. At that time our ancestors were small, tarsier-like primates, not "hairy, hunting, howling" cavemen, although the thought of such creatures riding an Arsinoitherium is quite amusing.

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Look at the hind legs in the "Current Literature" drawing: it looks as if they are splayed outward. I have seen it said that A. was probably semi-amphibious (evidence being weak limbs or girdles that don't seem up to vigorous on-land exercise): do you suppose that maybe (like Moeritherium) it had a somewhat sprawling posture?

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 18 May 2009 #permalink

Quite biased, these early paleontologists! Arsinoitherium may have been a flamboyant mammal, and certainly extinct, but so are 99% of all the life forms that have ever existed. There was every reason to examine their geneology (the current thinking aligns them with the proboscideans.) Like Allen, I've noticed some discrepancy in descriptions of the animals stance (a "sea monsters" special claimed they could never fully straighten their legs, while Turner and Anton in their book "Evolving Eden" describe the legs as straight and columnar, like those of elephants. Since the former description comes from the same people who brought us "Walking With Dinosaurs", I'm inclined to believe Turner and Anton!)

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 19 May 2009 #permalink

Other illustrations accompanying the article bear similar captions, each describing the dangers or uses of extinct creatures to humans. They all seem over-the-top so I do not suspect that some creationist was making his objections to Knipe's work known. Regardless of the intent of the captioner, though, we know that there were no humans around to make use of Arsinoitherium during the time it walked the earth. At that time our ancestors were small, tarsier-like primates, not "hairy, hunting, howling" cavemen, although the thought of such creatures riding an Arsinoitherium is quite amusing.

As a homosexual I can only laugh at the heterosexuality of colonial science outside Europe.

Manticores anyone?

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 10 Oct 2009 #permalink