This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Collections Manager in the Museum’s Zoological Collections.
This huge molar tooth belonged to a wide-lipped or white rhinoceros living in Africa. This species, whose scientific name is Ceratotherium simium, is one of the five species of rhinos that are still alive today in Asia and Africa.
The tooth was brought back to England by William Burchell, a naturalist and explorer of South Africa and Brazil. Burchell was born in Fulham, London, and left England in 1805 to seek his fortune in St. Helena. He worked there as a botanist and a teacher, but in 1810 decided to travel in South Africa, from Cape Town into the inhospitable plains of the Karoo. In preparation for the expedition, he designed a travelling wagon, which was to serve as a place to sleep, eat and keep all the specimens he collected during his travels. The wagon was pulled by 8 oxen and was followed by a flock of sheep to provide fresh meat in case hunting proved unsuccessful. During his 5 year journey Burchell collected many mammals, insects and minerals, including this rhinoceros tooth. When he returned to England Burchell offered most of his collection to the Natural History Museum in London and then spent some time describing all the unknown species in scientific papers. In 1817 he described the wide-lipped rhinoceros, Ceratotherium simium and this tooth is the “type” specimen, which means the first specimen to be described and written about as a new species. Sadly, Burchell committed suicide in 1863, and his sister offered the remaining items in his collection to Oxford University.