Behind the Glass — Brontotheres

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Mondays are quiet here in the public galleries since the museum is closed to visitors.  So we took the opportunity to squeeze through some tight wall spaces and clamber into an exhibit case for an official photo shoot for YPM VP 12048, the type specimen for Brontops robustus.  The pebble-strewn ground is a lie.  It is actually a perilous game of walking on thin ice:  keep your weight on the bouncing planks of plywood, avoid falling through the chicken wire!  Of course, all those darned loose rocks covering everything make it impossible to see the difference. . . . . . Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.

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Up close and personal.  This animal belongs to the Family Brontotheriidae.  Brontotheres are odd-toed ungulates (perissodactyls) and greatly resemble rhinos; however, modern analysis shows that this extinct lineage of mammals are most closely related to horses (Benton 2005).  Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.

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Though a few areas of this skeleton may be reconstructed, what you see on display here is the real fossil!  This well-preserved and largely complete specimen was discovered in 1875 near Chadron in the northwest corner of Nebraska in Oligocene aged deposits (Osborn 1929).  Image credit: Yale Peabody Museum / Curious Sengi.

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Brontotheres (sometimes called by their older name, titanotheres) are the subject of a richly illustrated, two-volume masterwork by American Museum paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857 – 1935).  The exact specimen on display today is reconstructed here in an illustration originally published by O.C. Marsh in 1889.  Image credit: Osborn 1929.

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The skeleton was actually mounted for display in 1916 under the direction of Richard Swann Lull (1867 – 1957), who studied under Osborn.  Unlike the static standing pose in the Marsh illustration, Lull opted to capture the moment of a charging run, with the pert little tail in the air with rhino-like indignation.  This exact same pose can be seen on display.  When Lull measured the skeleton after it was mounted, he reported the height at the shoulder to be 8 feet, 2 1/2 inches (2.5 meters).  Image credit: Osborn 1929.

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Fanciful reconstruction of life in a brontothere herd.  There used to be very different grazers out there on the Great Plains!  Image credit: Restoration by Erwin Christman & Charles R. Knight, reproduced in Osborn 1929.

References

Benton, Michael.  2005.  Vertebrate Paleontology, third edition.  Oxford:  Blackwell Publishing.

Osborn, Henry Fairfield.  1929.  Titanotheres of Ancient Wyoming, Dakota, and Nebraska, Vol. 1.  Washington, D.C.:  United States Government Printing Of

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