by Matthew Cobb
Take a look at this photo of rock in Cappadocia, Turkey. Notice anything odd about the shape of the rock at the bottom of the picture?
If you squint at it, it looks like there are something like a pair of ears or eye-sockets. Cappadocian pareidolia? Ceratotherium neumayri. Not only does this look like it might be the head of a large mammal, it is. (Strikingly, if you want, you can see the muzzle of a beast to the right. The muzzle is pareidolia.)
According to Pierre-Olivier Antoine et al writing in PLoS ONE, this is the skull of a large extinct two-horned rhinoceros, Ceratotherium neumayri, which got stuck in a lava flow about 9.2 million years ago. Here’s the rest of their Figure 2:
The story is fascinating: in June 2010 a team of vulcanologists from Hacettepe University were out doing field work on ignimbrite flows (i.e. rock formed by dense currents of gas, ash, and other debris) in the mountains when they came across the fossil:
a coronal-plane section of the cerebellar area was cropping out in a vertical bank of a small stream incised within an ignimbrite flow (N 38°41.819’, E 34°36.811’, 1029 m above sea level; Figure 2). The skull was excavated three days later with the help of a French-Turkish palaeontological team including other authors.
Here’s the excavated skull:
Caption: Articulated cranium and mandible (HU-2011-1). a. Left lateral view, with upper/lower cheek teeth angle (ca. 26°) and tentative reconstruction of the lacking parts (maxillae, nasals, parietals, and occipital bone). b. Upper cheek tooth series, with left P2-M3, in occlusal view. c. lower cheek tooth series, with left p2-m3, in labial-occlusal view. The corrugated aspect of the bony surface (3a, 3c) is interpreted as resulting to a long exposure to warm volcaniclastics. Scale bar: 50 mm.
And here’s a picture of what the beast might have looked like in life, taken from here:
Antoine and his co-workers think that the poor old rhino – in fact, a young adult 10-15 years old –got too close to a cloud of ash and volanic debris, died instantly, and had its head separated from the rest of the body (which will presumably be lurking elsewhere in the rock). The mouth opened because of rapid dehydration as it was surrounded by the red-hot matter. As the authors summarise it, an ignimbrite flow:
i) provoked the instant death of the Karacaşar rhino, before the body of the latter ii) experienced severe dehydration (leading to the wide and sustainable opening of the mouth), iii) was then dismembered within the pyroclastic flow of subaerial origin, the skull being separated from the remnant body and baked under a temperature approximating 400°C, iv) then transported northward, rolled, and trapped in disarray into that pyroclastic flow forming the pinkish Kavak-4 ignimbrite, and v) was incidentally found by four of us in 2010, ~30 km North from the upper Miocene vent.
So there you go, young rhinos – keep away from the ignimbrite! And the next time you look at a rock and think there might be something in there, perhaps you’ll be right.
[EDIT: Glaring geological inaccuracies removed thanks to Callan Bentley in comment 2 below. Others may remain!]
Antoine P-O, Orliac MJ, Atici G, Ulusoy I, Sen E, et al. (2012) A Rhinocerotid Skull Cooked-to-Death in a 9.2 Ma-Old Ignimbrite Flow of Turkey. PLoS ONE 7(11): e49997.