Chalicotherium Facts and Figures

Chalicotherium

DiBgd/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Name:

Chalicotherium (Greek for "pebble beast"); pronounced CHA-lih-co-THEE-ree-um

Habitat:

Plains of Eurasia

Historical Epoch:

Middle-Late Miocene (15-5 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About nine feet high at the shoulder and one ton

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Horse-like snout; clawed feet; longer front than hind legs

About Chalicotherium

Chalicotherium is a classic example of the bizarre megafauna of the Miocene epoch, about 15 million years ago: this gigantic mammal is virtually unclassifiable, having left no direct living descendants. We do know that Chalicotherium was a perissodactyl (that is, a browsing mammal possessing an odd number of toes on its feet), which would make it a distant relative of modern horses and tapirs, but it looked (and probably behaved) like no plus-sized mammal alive today.

The most notable thing about Chalicotherium was its posture: its front legs were significantly longer than its hind legs, and some paleontologists believe that it brushed the knuckles of its front hands along the ground when it walked on all fours, a bit like a modern gorilla. Unlike today's perissodactyls, Chalicotherium had claws instead of hooves, which it probably used to rope in vegetation from tall trees (a bit like another prehistoric mammal it vaguely resembled, the giant sloth Megalonyx, which lived a few million years later).

Another odd thing about Chalicotherium is its name, Greek for "pebble beast." Why would a mammal that weighed at least a ton be named after a pebble, rather than a boulder? Simple: the "chalico" part of its moniker refers to this beast's pebble-like molars, which it used to grind down the soft vegetation of its Eurasian habitat. (Since Chalicotherium shed its front teeth during adulthood, leaving it bereft of incisors and canines, this megafauna mammal was clearly unsuited to eating anything except fruits and tender leaves.)

Did Chalicotherium have any natural predators? That's a tough question to answer; clearly, a full-grown adult would have virtually impossible for a single mammal to kill and eat, but sick, aged and juvenile individuals may have been preyed on by contemporary "bear dogs" like Amphicyon, especially if this distant canine ancestor had the ability to hunt in packs!