Ancient Woolly Rhino Discovered, Giving Clues about Earth's Icy Climate

First Posted: Mar 06, 2013 08:13 AM EST

You may have heard about the ancient camel in the Canadian Arctic, but did you know about the woolly rhino? A specimen of this massive beast has been discovered, and could give scientists clues about what the conditions were like when the creature still roamed the Earth.

Thousands of years ago, Britain looked more like the Arctic tundra. Summer temperatures hovered around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, while winter temperatures plunged to -7 degrees.  Grass and other vegetation sustained large animals such as woolly mammoths, reindeer, bison and horses while they were hunted by predators that included wolves and hyenas.

The woolly rhinoceros possessed a stocky body covered in a thick coat with a short tail and ears. Yet this same dense body shape may have doomed the animal. It would have been almost impossible for it to cope with the deep snow that arrived as the climate became both warmer and wetter and may have eventually driven it to extinction.

The latest specimen, though, wasn't attacked by predators or trapped in snow. The woolly rhinoceros most likely met with an accidental death. Due to the quality of the specimen, researchers could tell that the rhino was quickly buried after its death--it still had plant remains in its teeth. In addition, analysis shows that the rhino was at its prime rather than old or sickly.

So how did it die? Researchers believe that the rhino could have stumbled into quicksand while feeding at the edge of a water channel, or it could have been cut off on part of a floodplain and drowned.

Using radiocarbon dating, the scientists were able to determine that this rhino lived during the middle part of the last Ice Age, also known as the Devensian glaciation. Because the specimen was so well preserved, scientists were able to gather quite a bit of information about the climate at the time. In addition to the rhino, though, scientists also found preserved beetles and midges at the site, which allowed them to determine that the climate was similar to the severely cold and continental climates that are akin to Asia today.

The details of the findings are published in the Journal of Quaternary Science.

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