Reconstructing an incomparable organism: the Chalicothere in nineteenth and early-twentieth century palaeontology

Abstract

Palaeontology developed as a field dependent upon comparison. Not only did reconstructing the fragmentary records of fossil organisms and placing them within taxonomic systems and evolutionary lineages require detailed anatomical comparisons with living and fossil animals, but the field also required thinking in terms of behavioural, biological and ecological analogies with modern organisms to understand how prehistoric animals lived and behaved. Yet palaeontological material often worked against making easy linkages, bringing a sense of mystery and doubt. This paper will look at an animal whose study exemplified these problems: the Chalicothere. Increasingly (although not unproblematically) recognized as a specific type from finds across North America and Eurasia from the early nineteenth century onwards, these prehistoric mammals showed short back legs terminating in pawed feet, long front limbs ending in sharp claws, a long flexible neck, and herbivorous grinding teeth. The Chalicothere became a significant organism within palaeontological studies, as the unexpected mix of characters made it a textbook example against the Cuvierian notion of “correlation of parts,” while explaining how the animal moved, fed and behaved became puzzling. However, rather than prevent comparisons, these actually led to comparative analogies becoming flexible and varied, with different forms of comparison being made with varying methods and degrees of confidence, and with the anatomy, movement and behaviour of giraffes, bears, horses, anteaters, primates and other organisms all serving at various points as potential models for different aspects of the animal. This paper will examine some of the attempts to reconstruct and define the Chalicotheres across a long timescale, using this to show how multiple comparisons and analogies could be deployed in a reconstructive and evolutionary science like palaeontology, and illustrate some of the limits and tensions in comparative methods, as they were used to reconstruct organisms which were thought to be incomparable to any modern animal.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

Courtesy of the British Library

Figs. 2, 3, 4

Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

Fig. 5

Courtesy of the British Library

Fig. 6

Courtesy of the British Library

Notes

  1. 1.

    As this article will highlight, the taxonomic description of the Chalicotheres underwent considerable revaluation over the period being considered. This paper will broadly use the term ‘Chalicothere’ to refer to the family as a whole, and refer to lower taxonomic ranks by their genus or species names.

  2. 2.

    The term ‘pachyderm’ was often used as general category for four-footed herbivores in this period.

  3. 3.

    The Dinotherium would be understood by later scientists as a land-dwelling proboscidean and grouped with the elephants, lacking claw-like feet.

References

  1. Abel, O. (1920). Studien über die Lebensweise von Chalicotherium. Acta Zoologica, 1, 21–60.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Anderson, T. (2013). Aepyornis as moa: Giant birds and global connections in nineteenth-century science. British Journal for the History of Science, 46, 675–693.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Andrews, C. W. (1923). An African Chalicothere. Nature, 112, 696.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Bowler, P. J. (1976). Fossils and progress: Paleontology and the idea of progressive evolution in the nineteenth century. New York: Science History Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bowler, P. (1983). The eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian evolution theories in the decades around 1900. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bowler, P. J. (1996). Life’s splendid drama: Evolutionary biology and the reconstruction of life’s ancestry, 1860–1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Brinkman, P. (2010). The second Jurassic dinosaur rush: Museums and paleontology in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Cohen, C. (2011). La méthode de Zadig: la trace, le fossile, la preuve. Ed. du Seuil, Paris.

  9. Cuvier, G. (1823). Recherches sur les ossemens fossile, ou l’on rétablit les caractères de plusieurs espèces d’animaux dont les révolutions du globe ont détruit les espèces (Vol. 5). Paris.

  10. Dawson, G. (2016). Show me the bone: Reconstructing prehistoric monsters in nineteenth-century Britain and America (p. 2016). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Falconer, H. (1868). On Chalicotherium sivalense. Fauna antiqua sivalensis. London 208–226.

  12. Filhol, H. (1892). Etudes sur les mammifères fossiles de Sansan. Annales des sciences géologiques, 21, 1–319.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Gaudant, J. (1991). Albert Gaudry (1827–1908) et les «Enchaînements du Monde animal». Revue d’Histoire des Sciences, 44, 117–128.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Gaudry, A., & Lartet, E. (1856). Résultats des recherches paléontologiques entreprises dans l’Attique sous les auspices de l’Académie. Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences de Paris, 43, 271–274.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Holland, W. J., & Peterson, O. (1913). The osteology of the Chalicotheroidea: With special reference to a Mounted Skeleton of Moropus elatus Marsh, now installed in the Carnegie Museum. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Kaup, J. J. (1832). Description d’Ossements Fossiles de Mammifères inconnus jusqu’à présent, qui se trouvent au Muséum grand-ducal de Darmstadt. Darmstadt.

  17. Nieuwland, I. (2010). The colossal stranger. Andrew Carnegie and Diplodocus intrude European culture, 1904–1912. Endeavour, 34, 61–68.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Osborn, H. F. (1892). The ancestry of Chalicotherium. Science, 19, 484.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Osborn, H. F. (1893). The Acylopoda, Chalicotherium and Artionyx. American Naturalist, 27, 118–133.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Osborn, H. F. (1910). The age of mammals in Europe. New York: Asia and North America.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Osborn, H. F. (1913). Eomoropus, an American Eocene chalicothere. Bulletin AMNH, 32, 261–274.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Podgorny, I. (2013). Fossil dealers, the practices of comparative anatomy and British diplomacy in Latin America, 1820–1840. British Journal for the History of Science, 46, 647–674.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Pycraft, W. P. (1923). The world of science: On the track of a fugitive: A “Bogey” monster of Central Africa. The illustrated London news.

  24. Regal, B. (2013). Searching for sasquatch: Crackpots, eggheads, and cryptozoology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Rieppel, L. (2012). Bringing dinosaurs back to life: Exhibiting prehistory at the american museum of natural history. Isis, 103, 460–490.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Rieppel, L. (2015). Plaster cast publishing in nineteenth-century paleontology. History of Science, 53, 456–491.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Rudwick, M. J. S. (1976). The meaning of fossils: Episodes in the history of palaeontology. New York: Science History Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Rudwick, M. (2005). Bursting the limits of time: The reconstruction of geohistory in the age of revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Rudwick, M. (2008a). Worlds before Adam: The reconstruction of geohistory in the age of reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Rudwick, M. (2008b). Georges Cuvier, fossil bones, and geological catastrophes: New translations and interpretations of the primary texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Rudwick, M. J. S. (2014). Earth’s deep history: How it was discovered and why it matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Scott, W. B. (1913). A history of land mammals in the western hemisphere. New York: Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Scott, W. B. (1937). A history of land mammals in the Western Hemisphere (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan Company.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Vetter, J. (2008). Cowboys, scientists, and fossils: The field site and local collaboration in the American West. Isis, 99, 273–303.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Chris Manias.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Manias, C. Reconstructing an incomparable organism: the Chalicothere in nineteenth and early-twentieth century palaeontology. HPLS 40, 22 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-018-0187-0

Download citation

Keywords

  • Evolution
  • Moschops
  • Mammals
  • Cuvier
  • Correlation
  • Analogy
  • Homology