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Ceramic Rhinoceros

Ceramic Rhinoceros

The size of this sculpture probably guarantees it will find a home in a garden or other outdoor display. Although not impossible to display in the home, the 16" length makes it more suitable to the great outdoors. At the same time, the fact that it is glazed means it should be best be taken indoors when the weather turns cold.

Rhinoceri (if that's the plural) - or more accuate - rhinocerotidae - is a designation of a family and is therefore even a broader designation than a genus. The genus rhinoceros is very specific for the one horned rhinoceri and so is not what this sculpture represents. To CooperToons' untrained eye, this appears to be a rhinocerotidae diceros bicornis even though it uses a double green and blue glaze, one put on top of the other and then fired to cone 6. You'd think he'd know what the heck animal he sculpted in what is called 420 architectural clay, but that's the way it goes. If any rhinoceros expert sees this image and notes an error, CooperToons would be most happy to learn more.

An interesting point of which many people are unaware - and so is a proper CooperToons Topic in the quest for eradicating ignorance and superstition - is that the rhinocerotidae - even in different families - can produce fertile offspring. This fact confuses some people because they learned - possibly from the otherwise quite admirable BBC television show Qi - that different species do not produce fertile offspring. Or as the host Stephen Fry put it regarding a particular species - although not about rhinoceri per se - "It might be able to shag one, but the point is, the egg won't be fertilized." Stephen, alas, is not quite correct.

So how can the various rhinoceri produce fertile offspring and yet be in different genii, much less different families? Curmudgeons may go into spittle flinging diatribe and grump that biologists just don't know what they're talking about. But the separation of the rhionceri by different species and families is indisputably correct. For instance, the black rhino and white rhino, do not - that's do not - do no even have the same number of chromosomes. And yet they can produce fertile offspring.

The answer - as writer George Orwell would put it - is in front of our noses if we care to see it. The truth is nature is incredibly complex and over millions of years of evolution, the distinctions even between plants and animals and even between living and non-living entities blur (compare viruses and phages to self-assembled molecules). Nature couldn't care less that human beings try to make things simple by classification. Nothing wrong with it, mind you, but clear cut divisions in nature are, ultimately, human inventions.

Of course, for biologists it's old hat that some different species can indeed interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Sometimes cross species breeding will produce fertile offspring as often as within a species. Sometimes it might be only a certain percentage of the time. Or two species rarely if ever produce fertile offspring. And of course, the vast majority of separate species don't even bother trying. How then can you tell if two animals are different species or not?

Stephen's other's error, then, is one of logic. Just as all robbers are criminals (unless they are executive officers of major international banks), all criminals are not robbers (who have a more honorable profession than executive officers of major international banks). Species are animals which have naturally acquired distinct differences in taxonomy (appearance), biological markers, and behavior. So while, yes, animals which regularly produce non-fertile offspring are different species, the converse is not always true.

In fact, look at an older (we must point out older) textbook of animal species. You'll read that coyotes, dogs, and wolves are different species. That's because over the millions of years of evolution they have developed distinct and recognizable appearances, biochemical markers, and - this is important - behaviors. Behavioral differences keep these species separate if left to themselves. They do not mix and mingle in the wild. Nor do the different rhinoceri.

However, genetic research and the ability to map the genome can make biologist concede the need for revisions of the species classifications. So biologists have recently removed the species separation of dogs and wolves. Wolves and dogs are now considered one species canis lupus and different subspecies which are lupus and familiaris. On the other hand coyotes - which can indeed produce fertile offspring with either domesticated dogs or wolves - are still considered a separate species. That's the trouble with trying to create distinctions when hundreds of millions of years of natural evolution have produced what is really a continuum.

Hahn? You said dogs? Why, they are about as different as can be. Chihuahuas and Great Danes? Pugs and greyhounds? These different breeds of dogs show much greater variety than exist between dogs and coyotes. So shouldn't they be different species? But if you look them up on the Fount of All Knowledge, all dogs are the same species! So what gives?

But, ladies and gentlemen, prehistoric dogs were not that diverse. It was mankind mucking about and keeping the odd ball looking pups that gave us the red-boned hounds laying on your front porch and the mop-dog yapper that gnaws at your ankle when you visit his home. People had to artificially maintain the separation that eventually produced the many breeds.

The point is dogs' behavior will not maintain the separation of breeds if left to themselves - as those who raise pedigree dogs in neighborhoods which abound with mutts can attest. Spaniels are most happy to pass the time with German Shepherds. Newfoundlands are quite satisfied to enjoy the company of Dobermans. And a Mr. Chihuahua would happily interbreed with Ms. Great Dane.

He would, that is, if someone put him up to it.


Well, that was a long way to tell a horrible joke. And we were talking about the rhinoceros - and a ceramic rhinoceros at that.


"Somatic chromosomes of a black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis Gray, 1821), D. A. Hungerford, H. C. Chandra, R. L. Snyder, American Naturalist, 101, pp. 357-358 (1967).

"Q-bands of some chromosomes of the White Rhinoceros (Diceros simus) K. M. Hansen, Hereditas, 82, pp. 205-208 (1976)