Paleontologists Find Unique Prehistoric Rhino Skull Preserved in Volcanic Ash

An international team of paleontologists has unearthed the skull of a large rhino that perished in a volcanic eruption about 9.2 million years ago in what is now Turkey.

This picture shows an artist’s reconstruction of the large two-horned rhino Ceratotherium neumayri, and Ceratotherium’s skull found in Anatolia, Turkey (Maëva J. Orliac / Antoine P-O et al)

The fossil was found near Karacaşar in Cappadocia, Central Turkey. It is thought to be that of the large two-horned rhino Ceratotherium neumayri common in the Eastern Mediterranean region during the late Miocene period.

“Unusual features of the preserved skull suggest that the animal was ‘cooked to death’ at temperatures that may have approached 500 degrees C, in a volcanic flow similar to that of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Italy in 79 A.D.,” said the authors of a paper describing the find in the journal PLoS ONE.

The rhino’s grisly death was near-instantaneous, and followed by severe dehydration in the extreme heat of the eruption.

“The body was baked under a temperature approximating 400 degrees C, then dismembered within the pyroclastic flow, and the skull separated from body,” the scientists described.

The flow of volcanic ash then moved the skull about 30 km north of the eruption site, where it was discovered by the team led by Dr Pierre-Olivier Antoine of the University of Montpellier, France.

Although other researchers have previously identified fossils of soft-bodied organisms preserved in volcanic ash, organic matter near an active volcanic eruption is usually quickly destroyed by the high temperatures, making a fossil such as this one extremely rare.

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Bibliographic information: Antoine P-O et al. 2012. A Rhinocerotid Skull Cooked-to-Death in a 9.2 Ma-Old Ignimbrite Flow of Turkey. PLoS ONE 7 (11): e49997; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0049997