News & Current Affairs

November 18, 2008

Woolly rhino’s ancient migration

Woolly rhino’s ancient migration

Woolly rhino spread west into Europe during a cold snap

The 460,000-year-old skull of a woolly rhino, reconstructed from 53 fragments, is the oldest example of these mighty, ice age beasts ever found in Europe.

The extinct mammals reached a length of three-and-a-half meters in adulthood and, unlike their modern relatives, were covered in shaggy hair.

Details of the work appear in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

The team says the find from Germany fills a gap in our understanding of how these animals evolved.

First on the scene

“This is the oldest woolly rhinoceros found in Europe,” said Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke, from the Senckenberg Research Institute in Weimar, Germany.

He added: “It gives us a precise date for the first appearance of cold-climate animals spreading throughout Asia and Europe during the ice ages.”

Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke (l) and Frederic Lacombat (r) examine the skull

The skull was pieced together from 53 fragments

The skull was discovered around 1900, in a gravel pit at the foot of the Kyffhauser mountain range near the city of Bad Frankenhausen.

The 53 fragments were only recently put together by Dr Kahlke and his colleague Frederic Lacombat, from the Crozatier Museum in Puy-en-Velay, France.

After examining the reconstructed cranium, they assigned the specimen to Coelodonta tologoijensis, an Asian woolly rhino species that had not previously been described in Europe.

Woolly rhino (Coelodonta) first appeared about 2.5 million years ago in the northern foothills of the Himalayas.

And for much of their evolutionary existence, these mammals were confined to steppe environments in continental Asia.

The key was their diet, which started off being rather mixed – including the leaves of shrubs and trees.

But as conditions became increasingly arid, the woolly rhino evolved into a specialist in browsing for steppe food that grew nearer to the ground.

Coelodonta skull from Bad Frankenhausen, Germany

Changes in the animals’ anatomy enabled them to tolerate cold, arid conditions

The animals probably migrated from Asia into East and Central Europe when cold, arid conditions held sway between 478,000 and 424,000 years ago.

Their territorial advances were paralleled by changes in anatomy.

“Analysis of the Frankenhausen specimen shows that Coelodonta tologoijensis… carried its head low along the ground and had a lawnmower-like mouth with a huge set of grinding teeth,” said Mr Lacombat.

“As the climate became colder, these animals became more efficient at utilising the available food.”

The researchers propose that the species represented at Bad Frankenhausen, C. tologoijensis, was ancestral to the “true” woolly rhino, C. antiquitatis, which was common across Eurasia during ice ages.

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