Not pareidolia: The rhino that was cooked

November 26, 2012 • 3:46 pm

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?

A rock in Turkey. With a man in the background for scale. Detail of Figure 2 from Antoine et al (2012)

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:

Detail from Figure 2, Antoine et al (2012)

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:

Un volcan a préservé un rhinocéros fossilisé !

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.

h/t @TetZoo

[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.

16 thoughts on “Not pareidolia: The rhino that was cooked

  1. Quick fact check: Ignimbrites are not lava flows (oozing molten rock) – they are the deposits of pyroclastic flows – dense currents of gas, ash, and other debris. This rhino was overwhelmed by ashy air, not a river of liquid rock.

    Turkey has extraordinary ignimbrite deposits that make up the “fairy towers” in the region of Cappadoccia. Well worth visiting!

      1. Quick nitpicker remark: There is still some lava left in the third paragraph.

        Great stuff, anyways. Who would think that a rock that looks like a head actually is (or was) a head? Now, let’s take the next step and establish cloud archeology! I’ve seen some fascinatingly shaped clouds but somehow I’m afraid this idea does not add up.

        1. Oh bum for the lava. Let’s leave it in. After all, Chekhov was mistakenly labelled as E V Rieu for nearly a year on this site…

  2. It’s not just rhinos that need to keep away from ignimbrites, quite a few vulcanologists have been killed by them too. An eruption in South America not so long ago wiped out nearly a dozen of them, if memory serves. They expected the pyroclastic flow, calculated carefully where it would go and stood waiting for it. They were right, and they died. Vulcanologists have a tendency to be nuts.

    1. One could argue that the chances of a theoretical prediction being exactly right are low enough that the predicted path is actually the safest place to stand.

      But why argue? Actions speak louder than words.

      And natural selection always operates.

    2. An eruption in South America not so long ago wiped out nearly a dozen of them, if memory serves. They expected the pyroclastic flow, calculated carefully where it would go and stood waiting for it. They were right, and they died.

      I suspect that you’re thinking of the “Galeras Incident”, when a group of volcanologists attending a conference (on volcanic risk in the Andes, ironically enough) participated in a field trip, and got caught by a very minor eruption. Several – but not dozens injured and dead. I’ll do some googling now …
      Wikipedia puts it at 6 volcanologists and tourists (who IIRC had used the volcanologist’s rope ladders and other equipment to enter the crater, with permission) killed, and five of the volcanologists survived (with significant injuries for some). Remembering from reading Williams’ book “Surviving Galeras” (ISBN: 0316855707) when it came out, They had risk-assessed going into the crater (to collect gas samples, as part of continuing work trying to research techniques for predicting volcanic eruptions to high precision ; Galeras is considered a very dangerous volcano, with approaching a half-million people at risk of death from pyroclastic flows, when it returns to having a major eruption series. The risk assessment was evidently wrong ; but that doesn’t make the actions of the people involved irrational.

      Vulcanologists have a tendency to be nuts.

      If you really think that, then I can’t think of better advice than to read Williams book (op.cit.) : it’s not very well written, and it positively screams of the pain of a man with a severe case of “survivor guilt”. But having read it myself shortly after it came out, it was deeply worrying to me in my professional work, as well as in my amateur sporting of mountaineering and caving. In my professional work, every time (every time) I’m making assignments for crew to go out to oil rigs to do their jobs, I have to ask myself “Is this flight justified? Am I making reasonable use of the personnel resources we’ve got to distribute risk reasonably. We’ve not, yet, had anyone killed at work ; not had anyone in a helicopter crash (though I came within a metre or two in 2001). Everyone in this business of the same age as me had friends killed in 1988. Another friend of mine (who I talked INTO the job) has been in a helicopter crash. It worries you. But when I read the risk assessment methods that Williams used on Galeras … I don’t think they’re unreasonable. Yes, he (and the colleagues involved, mostly experienced volcanologists) took real risks, and yes, they got caught. But with the information available before the event, I won’t say “Williams was reckless!” or even “foolhardy”.
      Since reading that book, and thinking on it, I’ve taken to carrying additional equipment with me on the hill and down the cave. A sleeping bag in winter ; spare lamps (with tested batteries) ; map, two compasses as well as GPS equipment ; ice axe unless I’m really, really sure that it’s unnecessary. And if that makes my rucksack or tackle bag heavier, then that’s a lot better than being on the end of finger-pointing in the way that Williams is. It really does change your attitude.
      Don’t get me started on Somali pirates. That’s a live worry at the moment.
      What’s that old joke : “if we knew what we were doing, we couldn’t call it research.”

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