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SOS Rhino : In the News : Big rhinos horned in on prehistoric Kansas

Big rhinos horned in on prehistoric Kansas

Associated Press
Sunday, April 4, 2004

WICHITA, Kan. - A rodent fossil hunter from the University of Buffalo, N.Y., came to Kansas looking for rats with horns.

He found rhinos instead. Rhinoceroses. Rhinoceri. Barrel-chested, thick-skinned, snout-horned unicorns with three toes to a foot and a big, fat belly.

Bill Korth and his students found lots of the creatures, 9 million years old, eroding out of the sandstone along the banks of Sappa Creek, which trickles through Rawlins and Decatur counties and even stops by to visit the town of Oberlin.

These are not the first rhino bones found in Kansas, but Korth is happy and hopes for more.

"We can tell stories from these specimens," he said.

But first, because Korth found rhinos while looking for dead rodents, we need to say a word about the world's underappreciated fossil rodent specialists.

They are a proud breed, devoted to small things. In the field, a rodent guy like Korth hunts treasure in anthills. If that sounds buggy, remember that these people, some of them anyway, have Ph.Ds because they know stuff. They know, for example, that brazen gangs of ants roam the countryside, raiding garbage cans, pillaging watermelon rinds and collecting hard-to-find microfossils, including the teeny, tiny teeth of ancient mammals.

Some of these teeth are not much bigger than fly specks. So looking for them could tire the cash-starved scientist faster even than the incessant seeking of grants.

Enter the ant. Some ant species shingle their rooftops with bits of bone, hard plastic and tiny, enamel-hard teeth. Want to be the Christopher Columbus of the fossil crowd? Seek the abodes of the ants!

But this is no quaint science. Though dinosaur hunters get better press, though Hollywood makes movies starring Tyrannosaurus rex and not some 10-inch rat with twin horns on his schnozzle, every paleontologist knows this: One dead-rodent scholar with vision can do more for bioscience than a T. rex bellyful of dino devotees.

"Of the 4,000 or so species of mammals alive today, half are rodents," Korth said Friday from his home in Rochester, N.Y. "There are more of them, they are more sensitive to environmental changes, they change more quickly through time, and in more diversity; they tell us more about the past, and about the world we live in."

This is all to explain why Bill Korth, Ph.D, a sensible small-town guy from northeast Nebraska, found rhinos in Kansas by first devoting study to Mylagaulus sesquipedalis, a groundhog-sized rodent from millions of years ago. This rodent grew twin horns on his snout. No scientist knows why. Neither do they know why the horns grew side by side, instead of one behind the other, like some modern rhinos.

But Korth knows that fossil collectors in Kansas, as early as 1877, found a tooth of one of the creatures along Sappa Creek.

Paleontologists like Korth aspire to time-travel storytelling. Mylagaulus sesquipedalis fossils are rare; clues to the creature could fill gaps in nature's story line.

So Korth sought the horned rodent in Kansas, first in 1999. He walked along Sappa Creek, searched the sandbars and banks. He searched for small things. He found big things instead. Skulls, leg bones, jaw bones, vertebrae. Such is science. Hunt rats, find rhinos.

And that wasn't all.

As he and his students dug up the bones and looked for more over the last five years, they found giant land tortoise shells and the teeth or bones of ancient camel, a mastodon, wild pigs and a three-toed horse. All these creatures lived for millions of years and disappeared before or just after American Indians arrived about 11,500 years ago.

The bones tell a compelling story and fill gaps in the scientific story line about how life played out day to day in the plains of 9 million years ago.

"We can look at how they were buried, study the sediment for clues to what was going on. We can see that some of the bones have been chewed on by predators; we'd be interested in knowing what did that. We can tell, maybe, how some of them died," Korth said.

He and his students have found eight rhinos in one spot, four in another, two in another.

That tells a story just in the numbers. Rhinos today are mostly nervous, touchy, solitary creatures uninterested in herds. These rhinos liked herds.

The bones paint a picture of a world that once thrived; of rhino herds moving across the Kansas plains, along with camels, horses, elephants; of the herds fording rivers and being drowned in flash floods; and of a prairie that to most of us would look more African than American.

It's all recorded in 9-million-year-old sandstone, where some of Korth's rhinos came to rest in groups, probably victims of a flash flood.

The fossils go to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa., which financed part of the dig.

One fossil brought extra satisfaction.

It's a single claw, from Mylagaulus sesquipedalis himself, the twice-horned rodent of Korth's devotion.

Korth found him here, along with rhinos, camels, bits of elephant and horses - and vivid stories of the plains.