Larger than life but smaller than Godzilla



Mounted specimen from American Museum of Natural History, and currently part of the traveling Extreme Mammals exhibit.

Reconstruction by Charles Knight

When: Eocene (~49 to 39 million years ago)

Where: North America

What: Uintatherium  is one of the first large mammalian herbivores. It stood about 6 feet (~1.8 meters) high at the shoulder and was roughly 13 feet (~4 meters) long. This isn’t that large for an animal today, but in the Eocene it was a giant! It lived in the lush sub-tropical forests of mid-Eocene North America, most likely eating a combination of terrestrial bushes and shrubs along with aquatic plants from lakes and marshes. Uintatherium has a nasty pair of upper canines, not what you would expect from a herbivore! It is thought that these teeth were involved in sexual display, as they appear to be much larger in males than females. Uintatherium vanishes from the fossil record in the late Eocene, at about the time the temperature of North America was falling and the vegetation was thinning out. 

Uintatherium was also one of the fossils involved in the great ‘Bone Wars’ between Cope and Marsh. It was by far the largest of the fossils to come out of the Fort Bridger fossil localities in Wyoming (this fort gives its name to a land mammal age - The Bridgerian!), and thus highly prized. Cope and Marsh both applied multiple names to specimens from this region which would later prove to all belong to the same species. The name Uintatherium wasn’t even one applied by Cope OR Marsh. Joseph Leidy named this creature in 1872, just barely edging out Marsh’s names of Dinoceras and Tinoceras. So that particular battle in the bone wars was won by someone who didn’t even have much of an interesting in fighting! 

Uintatherium is not thought to have any living descendants, it is possible that the Eocene Uintatherium was the last of its kin. However, the position of Uintatherium and its brethren (grouped as the Dinocerata) within the mammal family tree is highly uncertain. They are well accepted as placental mammals, but beyond that? It is highly debated, and in my opinion, nobody has really done a rigorous enough study to support any one position over another.