The story of one rhino’s identity

THE Royal Irish Academy’s journal Biology and Environment doesn’t carry detective stories but there’s a fascinating one in its current edition.

The plot concerns a long dead rhinoceros and the attempts of forensic pathologists to discover its true identity.

In 1864 Charles Trevelyan, finance minister in India, presented a rhino to Dublin Zoo. The historian Catherine de Courcy described what happened next. The animal was transported from Calcutta (now Kolcata) to London Zoo and, in due course, sent on to Dublin.

The poor creature wasn’t happy here, however. Prone to “fits”, it made “a ferocious attack” on its keeper.

Zoos, in those days, were not the enlightened institutions they are today; animals had a lot to contend with. On one occasion, for example, a boy was caught trying to measure the thickness of the unfortunate rhino’s skin with a pin. Not surprisingly, the visitor never ‘settled’ and died the following year.

The carcass was bought by Trinity College where an autopsy was performed by Samuel Haughton, the distinguished professor of geology. Given its origins, the rhino must belong to one of the Asian species. There are three, one of which, the Sumatran, has two horns. The Dublin specimen was one-horned which narrowed the field to two. Haughton decided it was a great Indian rhino about three-years-old. The specimen was mounted and has been exhibited in the college zoological museum ever since.

Then, on a chance visit to Trinity, the present Dublin Zoo director, Leo Oosterweghel, noticed the specimen. The claim that it was an Indian rhino, he thought, wasn’t convincing. The animal seemed too small and the configuration of its skin folds, which give Asiatic rhinos their armoured personnel carrier appearance, didn’t match. Could it, in fact, be a Javan rhino? In the 19th century, Javans still roamed the Sunderbunds of Bangladesh, not that far from Calcutta.

The issue was not just academic. All of the Asiatic rhinos are in trouble; their numbers are gravely depleted. The Javan is critically endangered; only 40 remain, all of them confined to a small peninsula at the eastern tip of Java. The species’ decline began so long ago that specimens are rare in museum collections. It was important, therefore, to identify the Trinity animal, if only to rule it out as a Javan.

Telling Javan from Indian rhinos is difficult. Both animals have great plate-like folds of skin. The configurations are diagnostic but taxidermists long ago often got things wrong. Even zoo keepers were fooled. What was thought to be a Javan rhino at Berlin Zoo turned out to be an Indian one. A supposed Indian animal, which died in Adelaide Zoo, was Javan.

Leo and Martyn Linnie, curator of the Trinity museum, made a series of measurements and examined the skin folds of the Dublin specimen. The taxidermist, unfortunately, had stretched the skin so tightly over the supporting frame that the original folding was obscured. The results of the physical examination were inconclusive. Only DNA profiling could reveal the mysterious animal’s identity.

Dick Groenenberg, of the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis, is an expert on the analysis of ancient DNA. Four skin samples and four bone samples were taken from the Dublin rhino and sent to him. The next stage of the drama, the molecular analysis, is strictly for the cognoscenti; a blow by blow account of it is given in the paper With Livingston through darkest Africa!

The results, however, were unambiguous; this was indeed a great Indian rhino. Haughton, famously, had been wrong about Darwin but he was right about the rhino. The result was something of a surprise to the authors. “It is remarkable”, they note, “to see how shallow its skin folds are (especially in the neck area); this contrasts sharply with the prominent folds normally seen in this species. Also, the skin is rather smooth, hardly showing the large tubercules characteristic of the great Indian”.

Elementary my dear Watson!

* On the Identity of the first Rhinoceros owned by Dublin Zoo: Genetic Characterisation of a poorly preserved Specimen, DSJ Groenenberg, C de Courcy, M Linnie and L Oosterweghel. Biology and Environment, Volume 112B, Royal Irish Academy.

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