Ratha's Courage introduces several new creatures to the series, including a larger horse called a “striper” and the two “rumblers”, Grunt and Belch. Adopted by the herder Bundi, and his younger friend Mishanti while still small, these beasts have unexpectedly grown into behemoths greater than the elephant-like “face-tails”(based on American mastodons – see “What are the Face-tails” in previous blog posts) that the Named are still struggling to domesticate. Ratha, having been preoccupied with clan business, hasn't been paying much attention to Bundi and Mishanti's two pets.
Here is her encounter with Grunt and Belch from Ratha's Courage, Chapter 2:
“As Ratha came to a grassy clearing, the sound of splintering branches made her look up. The hair lifted on her neck and her eyes widened. The alert hunter within made Ratha take a quick step back before she caught herself.
Slightly embarrassed to be so startled, Ratha bent her head and gave her foreleg a quick swipe with her tongue. Then she looked again.
There was almost no word in the Named tongue to describe the two gray-brown beasts browsing in the treetops. They were mountainous. They even looked a bit like mountains, with backs sloping slightly up from rump to shoulders, extended necks increasing the slope and carrying the ascending line to huge, blocky, horselike heads.”
Though distantly related to horses, Grunt and Belch are not equine. Ratha's language may not describe them very accurately, but our language does. The rumblers are based on a fossil beast from the Oligocene and Miocene called Indricotherium (formerly Baluchitherium because its fossils were discovered in Pakistan). Indricotheres are gigantic hornless rhinoceroses, the largest land mammal ever, exceeding elephants and mammoths in both weight and height. At a shoulder height of about 20 feet, the ability to brows at 25 feet and a weight of 15 tons, no wonder they remind Ratha of mountains!
Although today's horses and rhinos look nothing like each other, they are both perissodactyls, or mammals with an odd number of toes. This group includes horses, rhinos and tapirs, who trace their ancestry back to recently described tapir-like animals called paleotheres. Eohippus, the “dawn horse” of our childhood prehistoric animal books, is now thought to be a small paleothere, like the early Paleotherium hassiacum. Paleotheres didn't remain small, either. The later Paleotherium magnum could browse branches 6 feet from the ground. It had a horse-like head and long neck, but the legs, although elongated like a horse's, were heavy; the feet had three toes with pads underneath. The limbs looked as though they belonged to a tall rhino.
Similarities between paleotheres, early horses and early rhinos have long confused paleontologists, and even now, they haven't yet got it all sorted out. Many early rhinos were small and slender, like the early horses. Many older books refer to them as “running rhinoceroses”, which may seem like a contradiction in terms. Others became the heavyweights similar to the species of rhinos we know today. One, in particular, grew to enormous height so that it could browse high in the trees where other mammals couldn't reach. Its size freed it from having to defend against predators, so it lost its horn and became Indricotherium.
Like the reader, Ratha is a bit baffled.
“She had no idea what these beasts were. Once she had seen a rhino, a low-slung leathery-skinned animal with a head that resembled those moving among the branches far above her. That animal had a horn on its nose. These didn't, just a bulbous swelling above the upper lip.”
She and others of the Named could have easily seen a rhinoceros, since they have existed in various forms for 40 million years, well into her time. The woolly rhino, Coelodonta antiquitas, lived into the last Ice Age and images of it survive on the walls of caves once inhabited by prehistoric humans.
Why do Bundi and Mishanti call the indricotheres “rumblers”? Here, Ratha discovers the reason.
“Her ears swiveled to the sound of drawn-out grinding and crashing. She narrowed her eyes. The beasts were not just eating leaves or twigs; they were crunching up whole branches. A substantial part of the tree's canopy was already gone. Ratha promptly changed her mind about the creatures doing no harm. If they kept this up, they might just eat the top off every tree in the forest.
"Don't be afraid, clan leader," came a yowl from above. "The rumblers are gentle."
Inwardly Ratha bristled at the slightly mocking tone but didn't let her tail even twitch.
One rumble-beast lowered its head to gaze at Ratha. It was still chewing. The mushy slurping sound made her put back her ears. It was as disgusting as any other herdbeast's chomping, and much louder.
The rumbler's eyes, however, were mild, unlike the rhino's red-rimmed, irritable stare.
"They may be gentle, but I still don't want to be sat on." Ratha reared up on her hind legs, squinting to find Bundi in the treetop. "Where are you, Bundi, you little son of a three-horn?"
Even as newborns, wouldn't the two indricothere calves have been too large for Bundi and Mishanti to tame? True, but if they had lost their mother, and were starving and weak, their condition would have made it much easier for the Named herder and his friend to “adopt” and feed them. And their behavior provided suitable names.
Grunt and Belch do provide some comic relief when they dismay Ratha and Fessran, but they also play a critical part in the story's climax. To find out how, read the book!
For an intriguing discussion of paleotheres, horses and rhinos, see National Geographic, Prehistoric Mammals, by Alan Turner, illustrated (gorgeously!) by Mauricio Anton.