The woolly rhinoceros — known to scientists as any species of rhinos under the genus Coelodonta — roamed the planet up till 12,000 years ago, spreading all over Asia, Europe, and North Africa.
“It had a huge geographical range,” says Pierre-Olivier Antoine, a specialist in Cenozoic megamammals at the Université de Montpellier, in France. It was clad in a thick, shabby coat of rust-colored fur to weather winter storms of the Ice Ages. As such, the hairy beasts earned the nickname “woolly rhino”.
This is artist Julie Naylor’s rendering of Tibetan woolly rhino (Credit: Julie Naylor)
As one of the Ice Age megafauna, the woolly rhinoceros was more than 6 feet tall and 16 feet long, sporting two big keratin horns on the front of its head. Since some of the specimens scientists have found had broken ribs and horns, experts theorize the rhinos may have also used them for defense or for sexual combats — and were possibly aggressive animals.
The horns were also slightly flattened, as they were probably used to scrape through thick layers of snow covering the ground in order to munch away at the green grasses required by its herbivore diet.
“They had a seasonal diet, and they also browsed conifer leaves and other leaves that were available in their environment,” says Antoine, noting how scientists have found pollen residue in the mummified stomach of one particular specimen. “They eat whatever they can eat.”
The iconic, fortress of an animal most of us know as the woolly rhino today roamed across Europe and Asia throughout the Ice Ages. But research published in the journal Science in 2011 described a fossil from a specimen found in 2007 and dating all the way 3.6 million years ago, before the Ice Ages, in the Tibetan Plateau, the world’s highest and largest plateau.
The novel species described from these remains, dubbed the C. thibetana, is at the basis of a theory that the woolly rhino evolved a whole million years before the entire planet got cold. During that time, temperatures were actually just as warm as today, but Tibet would have been so north that temperatures ranged between -10 and 0°C (or 14 and 32°F), according to the study — a perfect spot for a shaggy, chunky animal to find its evolutionary cradle.
Fossil records found after this specimen suggest that other species then soon evolved in China and Siberia during the Ice Age: C. nihowanensis and C. tologoijensis. When the whole planet froze up through the Ice Ages, the woolly rhinoceros spread over all of Eurasia and gave birth to another species, C. antiquitatis, which survived long enough to meet our human ancestors.
Still, just because the Tibetan specimen is the oldest woolly rhino to be discovered, it doesn’t mean it was the first one to evolve, according to Antoine. “Or that it evolved from nothing,” he says.
Before genomic data became available for this species, paleontologists like Antoine believed that, given they share several physical features such as tooth and skull shape, woolly rhinos were closely related to today’s extant black and white rhinos.
Yet seminal genomic analyses have since suggested these similarities between woolly rhinos and black and white rhinos were actually just convergences, according to Antoine — cases in which similar features crop up in different branches of the evolutionary tree independently. In this case, because of the grazing diet common to all rhinos.
“This data shows the woolly rhino is actually closely related to the Sumatran rhino,” says Antoine, referring to the rare, small rhinos with two horns and long hair that still roam our lands today. “The only [modern rhinoceros species] with the fur.”
Despite the woolly rhino’s contentious origin story, a plethora of C. antiquitatis fossils have actually cropped up over the last decade, giving experts plenty of material to learn more about the animal and its evolution and lifestyle.
“The real woolly rhino, it has something like 1,200 fossil occurrences in Eurasia,” says Antoine, more than the current population of Sumatran and Javan rhinos put together. “It’s an excellent record; it’s just unparalleled.”
Many of these discoveries aren’t just fossils, but entire preserved carcasses, mummified inside the permafrost, some of which still have fur and soft tissue intact. A mummified baby rhino with its fur and soft tissues preserved in permafrost was found in an iconic 2014 discovery, dubbed “Sasha,” and reconstructed for a museum display in Russia. Antoine’s favorite is a sub-complete skeleton found in the Aven de Coulon Cave in Southern France,
Much less is known about C. thibetana, C. nihowanensis and C. tologoijensis, which are only known by one to a dozen individual specimens, making it much harder to learn about their lifestyles.
Throughout their very long existence on this planet, woolly rhinos co-existed with our human ancestors for about 16,000 years.
We even loved to depict them in their cave drawings, like in these brilliantly-accurate drawings found in Chauvet–Pont d’Arc in France from 30,000 years ago. In these Stone Age paintings, the rhinos are fighting each other, or being stabbed with arrows and spears, suggesting we tried to hunt them.
It probably wasn’t humans who killed off the entirety of woolly rhinos, though. Rather, a sudden change in climate around 14,700 years ago may have led to their demise. To scientists, this 2,000-year-long period of time in prehistory is also known as the Bølling-Allerød interstadial, and it represents the end of the last Ice Age.
That era is when gigantic Pleistocene ice sheets began to quickly retreat, melting and raising sea levels in the process — and leaving animals used to surviving in a frigid environment in a much warmer world.
A study published in Current Biology in 2020, and a subsequent paper published in Cell just the following year, which Antoine worked on, both pored over a bunch of data on the woolly rhino’s DNA and were able to map its population growth and decline with precision.
“Rhino population was really high about 30,000 years ago, at the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum, the coldest period close to us,” says Antoine. “But 15 to 14,000 years ago they were extirpated. By the end, only a small population was surviving, in the North.”
Given some preliminary data coming from the analysis of sediment samples and rhino dung, though, Antoine has a hunch they may have lived up to 10,000 years ago. “It would be plausible that the last bones are from 14,000 years ago, and the last individuals may have lived a little time after, but their bones are not preserved.”
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