The 26th of February marked the first year anniversary of Shelley the Glyptodon‘s residency outside the science library. A year later, she has become a name on everyone’s tongue, and provides a new location on campus for a popular rendezvous site.
On the same day, one year later, we welcomed a new resident in the lobby of Exley Science Centre. Our very own Deinotherium has been plucked out of storage, then given a year-long restoration effort. Deinotherium is hardly name that rolls off the tongue, so we put together a naming contest for her. Join here now!
Weighing up to 12 tons, with a shoulder height of 12-13 ft, Deinotherium is a distant relative of modern elephants, and amongst the largest land animals of its time —- the early late Miocene, ~9.5 million years ago. The animal was so large, that scientists at the time it was described (the 1800s) thought it could not have stood up on land, hence it must have lived in the water.
Deinotheriums originated in Africa, forming a separate group in the early phases of evolution of the group of animals in which the African and Indian elephants are the last survivors. Some forms migrated to Asia and Europe, and some into the Americas, such as the Mammoth; Deinotherium never made it to the New World.
Deinotherium grew its elongated tusks in their lower jaw, rather than in their upper jaw like modern elephants. These tusks likely contribute to their success, persisting for 20 million years without major changes in morphology. These mysterious tusks have invited many theories about their possible function(s). The 1859 popular volume ‘Curiosities of Science’ stated:
‘The family of herbivorous Cetaceans [i.e. sirenians] are connected with the Pachydermata of the land by one of the most wonderful of all the extinct creatures with which geologists have made us acquainted. This is the Dinotherium, or Terrible Beast. … It appears to have lived in the water, where the immense weight of these formidable appendages [i.e. tusks] would not be so inconvenient as on land. What these tusks were used for is a mystery; but perhaps they acted as pickaxes in digging up trees and shrubs, or as harrows in raking the bottom of the water.’
The 19th century clergy man, geologist and paleontologist Dr. William Buckland (1837) suggested that: ‘The tusks of the Dinotherium may also have been applied with mechanical advantage to hook the head of the animal to the bank, with the nostrils sustained above the water, so as to breathe securely during sleep, whilst the body remained floating, at perfect ease, beneath the surface : the animal might thus repose, moored to the margin of a lake or river, without the slightest muscular exertion, the weight of the head and body tending to fix and keep the tusks fast anchored in the substance of the bank; as the weight of the body of a sleeping bird keeps the claws clasped firmly around its perch. These tusks might have been farther used, like those in the upper jaw of the Walrus, to assist in dragging the body out of the water; and also as formidable instruments of defence.’
This specimen was particularly challenging to restore after 60 years in storage. It had to be stripped of grime, primed white, stippled with over 19 layers of archival acrylics, and air brushed for details to mimic the appearance of the original fossil. 4 coats of UV-resistant varnish protects it from fading, and Paraloid B-72 resin was used to create a bony sheen. The original cast maker at Ward painted the entire piece with a drab brown paint, which we changed instead to imitate the original fossil. Glyptodon and Deinotherium were part of a series of 900 Ward’s casts donated by Orange Judd, after whom Judd Hall was named, in 1871.
This semester, the lobby of Exley is teeming with activity, as the Tree of Life exhibit breathes a new life into the display case in the lobby to the Science Library. The exhibit is complemented with soft sounds of waves to signify that life on Earth first evolved in the ancient oceans. This will be a pleasant place to relax and concentrate with soothing white noise that hasn’t ceased since the first oceans playing in the background.