Paleontologia

Scientific sections

PALAEONTOLOGY

DID YOU KNOW

rhinoceros were used to roam across the land currently called Piedmont?

The Turin-Genoa railway line

Mid-nineteenth century: Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, politician and entrepreneur, preeminent figure of the Italian Risorgimento, trusted railway would have brought about economic and social development. Under his leadership, the Savoyard government funded the construction of the Turin-Genoa railway track.

Piantina dell'Europa centro-meridionale della metà del XIX secolo

The Big Surprise: A Rhino in the hills!

Spring 1880: excavations ongoing near Dusino San Michele, along the stretch between San Paolo Solbrito and Villafranca d'Asti, from the sandy sediments emerged the startlingly well-preserved and nearly complete fossil remains of a...rhinoceros!

The inspector of archaeological excavations in charge of the Asti district apprised Michele Lessona, Dean of the Royal University of Turin, with no delay.

Foto degli scavi dell’area di Dusino San Michele, 1880
Section of the Dusino Rhinoceros excavation

Three million years!

Researchers from the Institute of Geology of Turin, who rushed to the spot, found themselves stunned by the majestic skeleton of a two-cornered rhinoceros. The giant animal inhabited that land, emerged from the warm waters (the climate was subtropical) of the Pliocene marine Gulf of the Po Basin, roughly three million years earlier.

The fossil evidences prove that sea was populated by sharks and cetaceans, whereas terrestrial fauna included proboscideans (Anancus arvernensis and Mammut borsoni), saber-toothed tigers (Homotherium crenatidens), cheetahs (Acinonyx pardinensis), rhinos (Stephanorhinus jeanvireti), bovidae (Leptobos), tapirs, monkeys, and some species of amphibians.

In the alluvial and delta marshes, conifers such as Taxodium dubium and Glyptostrobus europaeus, similar to the species currently known as Taxodium distichum (Central-North America) and Glyptostrobus pensilis (China) were predominant, whereas species similar to maples, hornbeams, oaks, Actinidia and Cryptomeria of Asia, Liriodendron and Liquidambar of the Americas were plentiful in small standing water ecosystems.

The excavation campaigns of the second half of the 18th century had led to the finding of macro-vertebrates, including the straight-tusked mastodon Anancus arvernensis, three meters high at the withers and six meters long. Molars and tusks of that species have been found over the last few years.

Illustrazione di repertorio dell'Ambiente Villafranchiano
Villafrancian environment

Villafranchian

The relevance and abundance of both animal and plant fossil finds highlighted the geological uniqueness of Villafranca d'Asti and surrounding areas.

The term Villafranchian is still used worldwide by researchers as a reference to stratigraphic sequences marked by the presence, or succession, of a set of species that made their first or last appearance in that time span

About the excavations

The expense report of the excavations states:

  • the time frame (April 21 – May 28, 1880);
  • the amount disbursed for: fees for the sand quarrymen; purchase of isinglass and plaster for stabilising and sealing the remains; cost of shipping packages to secure the safe conveyance of brittle materials to Turin by rail.

Every step of the excavations, as detailed in two reports by Martino Baretti, Chair of Geology and Director of the Museum of Geology and Paleontology of the University of Turin, was brought to attention of the Academy of Sciences.

The second report – sketch from on-location photo enclosed – records the finding of the right hind limb with the bones still connected to the skeleton.

Disegno dell'arto posteriore destro di rinoceronte, dopo il suo ritrovamento
Drawing by Baretti

The first restoration

The restoration was carried out by Francesco Comba, as a technician of the Zoological Museum of Turin.

The treatment was to impregnate the finds with glues of animal origin. Applied hot, they worked to stick the fragments together.

Fifteen months after the discovery, the restored rhino was displayed at the Geology and Paleontology exhibition in Bologna, as a part of the broader 2nd International Conference of Geology.

In 1895 the geologist and palaeontologist Federico Sacco wrote a monograph containing in-depth bones description and taxonomic definition of the extraordinary find, which he believed belonging to a new variety (var. astensis) of Rhinoceros etruscus.

Immagine d'epoca dello scheletro di rinoceronte ritrovato
Reconstructed skeleton

The impact of war

Due to the bombing of Turin (1942 – 1943), which damaged the Museum of Geology and Palaeontology, the skeleton was dismantled and stored in crates and display cabinets. Water infiltration, fall of debris from the skylights, and the handling itself deteriorated the finds in a way deemed irreparable.

At the beginning of the 80s, the layer of glue, on which the humidity had stuck plaster particles and dust, was removed. Recognition and reconstruction of the osseous elements followed.

With the exception of some ribs and small portions of skull and pelvis, the skeleton was reassembled. Recent investigations have assigned the specimen to the species Stephanorhinus jeanvireti.

Resti dello scheletro di rinoceronte successivi ai bombardamenti del 1942 e 1943
Rhino bones in the post-war period

From "Rhinoceros" to "The spectacle of nature"

As a special guest of the exhibition "Rhinoceros", housed at the MRSN in 2004, Paolo Reggiani’s resin model granted public and researchers the chance to focus on the Dusino rhino again.

The model was the “star” of the exhibition "The spectacle of nature" in 2013.

What now?

With the reopening of the MRSN, the model of the extraordinary 'Piedmont rhinoceros' can once again be admired.

MRSN's Collection

The collection includes finds of superior exhibition value:

  • over one thousand specimens of plant and animal fossils;
  • the model of Giganotosaurus carolinii, a huge dinosaurs discovered in Argentina;
  • an almost complete rhinoceros found in Roatto (AT);
  • remains of a sirenian (Nizza Monferrato);
  • several hundred fossil fish samples from excavations at Pecetto di Valenza and Cherasco;
  • hundreds of specimens of mollusks and other invertebrates (Asti, Ovada; Bayeux and Caen).

Collection Of The University Of Turin

The collection includes:

  • finds that became part of the collections, as early as the beginning of the 19th century: skulls of Bison and Megaceros (from Arena Po) as well as of Anthracotheres (from Cadibona), whose descriptions (by Étienne Borson) are in the volumes of the Academy of Sciences;
  • donations of the researchers Bartolomeo Gastaldi and Carlo Fabrizio Parona: both large mammals (mastodons, elephants, whales, sperm whales, and dolphins) and invertebrate specimens only a few millimetres in size (foraminifera and molluscs);
  • more than 40,000 specimens, from all over the world, grouped into more than 300 "Thematic Collections". Among them, as studied by distinguished paleontologists and still being regularly investigated by specialists: Cretaceous Fossils of the Ocre Mountains (Abruzzo, Aquila), Fishes of Bolca, Fossils of Libya (Franchi Expedition, 1913), Eocene Gastropods of the Paris Basin, Fossils of Borneo (Bonarelli), Fossils of the Rio de Janeiro Bay (voyage of the ship Washington), Plaster models of vertebrate fossils sent by Cuvier (1825-1830);
  • a general Systematic Collection made up of 8,000 invertebrate specimens, mostly from areas outside of Piedmont.

Bellardi & Sacco Collection

Bellardi & Sacco Collection, one of the largest and most prestigious in Italy – of molluscs from the Ligurian-Piedmontese Tertiary Basin, encompassing 21,300 specimens:

  • 6,680 bivalves
  • 13,764 gastropods
  • 884 cephalopods, scaphopods, brachiopods, and other groups.

Information and images about the collection are managed by the application "Mèmora per I Beni Culturali” (https://www.memora.piemonte.it/ricerca/risultati?cerca=fossili&tipologia=Paleontologia)

INFORMATIONS

Annalaura Pistarino
Conservator-restorer

+39 011 4326312
paleontologia.mrsn@regione.piemonte.it

How many things can one learn about the natural world? Find it all out at the Regional Museum of Natural Sciences!