Woolly Rhinos: Characteristics, Origin and Diet

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According to the International Rhino Foundation: “The Woolly Rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) first appeared some 350,000 years ago and may have survived until as recently as 10,000 years ago. Their fossils are fairly common and have been discovered throughout Europe and Asia. Well-preserved remains have been discovered frozen in ice and buried in oil-saturated soils. In Ukraine, a complete carcass of a female Woolly Rhino was discovered buried in the mud. The combination of oil and salt prevented the remains from decomposing, allowing the soft tissues to remain intact. [Source: International Rhino Foundation \=]

The Woolly Rhino lived just as their recent relatives do, alone or in very small family groups. Coelodonta antiquitatis were hunted by early humans and they were depicted on the walls of caves in France 30,000 years ago. The Sumatran rhino, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, is the last representative of the Woolly Rhino family. \=\

“Once common throughout Northern Europe and Eastern Asia (especially in what is now Russia). Coelodonta antiquitatis' range extended from South Korea to Scotland to Spain. In the latter part of the Pleistocene Period, the Woolly Rhino may have had the largest range of any known rhinoceros, living or extinct. The Woolly Rhinos frequently inhabited the same areas as Woolly Mammoths, however they apparently never managed to move across the Bering Strait (Bering Land Bridge) and extend their range into North America. \=\

Mummified carcasses preserved in permafrost and many bone remains of woolly rhinoceroses have been found. Images of woolly rhinoceroses are found among cave paintings in Europe and Asia. The species range contracted towards Siberia beginning around 17,000 years ago, with the latest known sign of them being around 14,000 years old in northeast Siberia. This coincided with a period of warming, which likely disrupted their habitat. [Source: Wikipedia]

Woolly Rhinoceros Characteristics

Woolly rhinoceros were massive animals. Adults measured 3.2 to 3.6 meters (10.5 to 11.8 feet) from head to tail, stood 1.45–1.6 meters (4.8–5.2 feet) tall at the shoulder, and weighed up to 1.5–2 metric tons (1.7–2.2 tons). Both males and females had two horns which were made of keratin, with one long horn near the animal’s snout and a smaller horn closer to the eyes. The front horn measured 1–1.35 meters (3.3–4.4 feet) long for individuals at 25 to 35 years of age, while the second horn would have measured up to 47.5 centimeters (1.56 feet) long. [Source: Wikipedia]

Compared to other rhinoceroses, the woolly rhinoceros had a longer head and body, and shorter legs. Its shoulder was raised with a powerful hump, used to support the animal's massive front horn. The hump also contained a fat reserve to aid survival through the desolate winters of the mammoth steppe. The rhino’s tail was 45-to-50-centimeter (18 to 20 inches) in length and had a brush of coarse hair at the end. Females had two nipples on their udders.[22]

The woolly rhinoceros was covered with long, thick hair that allowed it to survive in the extremely cold, harsh mammoth steppe. Frozen specimens indicate that the rhino's long fur coat was reddish-brown, with a thick undercoat underneath a layer of long, coarse guard hair thickest on the withers and neck. Shorter hair covered the limbs, keeping snow from attaching. The animal had several features which reduced the body's surface area and minimized heat loss. In addition to all its hair, the rhino had thick skin, ranging from 5 to 15 millimeters (1∕4 to 5∕8 inches), heaviest on the chest and shoulders. Its ears were no longer than 24 centimeters (9+1∕2 in), while those of rhinos in hot climates are about 30 centimeters (12 inches). Some animals that live in hot climates have big ears ,which helps them dispel heat.

The skull had a length between 70 and 90 centimeters (30 and 35 inches). It was longer than those of other rhinoceros, giving the head a deep, downward-facing slanting position. Strong muscles on its long occipital bone formed its neck hock and held the massive skull. Its massive lower jaw measured up to 60 centimeters (24 inches) long and 10 centimeters (4 inches) high. The animal’s teeth had thickened enamel and an open internal cavity. Like other rhinos, adults did not have incisors. It had three premolars and three molars in both jaws. Unlike modern rhinos, the nasal septum of the woolly rhinoceros was ossified. This was likely evolved as a result of the heavy pressure on the horn and face when the rhinoceros grazed underneath the thick snow.

Woolly Rhinoceros Food, Feeding and Diet

Woolly rhinoceroses were herbivores who grazed on grass, shrubby sprouts, forbs (small herbaceous plants), lichens and mosses. They had a broad front lip. The horns of Coelodonta antiquitatis fossils show abrasion marks that were presumably caused by to and fro motion of the head as it pushed the snow away while searching for food. [Source: International Rhino Foundation \=]

Woolly rhinos mostly fed on grasses and sedges that grew in the mammoth steppe. The shape its head, downward-facing posture, and teeth all helped it graze on steppe vegetation. The animals had a wide upper lip like that of the white rhinoceros, which allowed it to easily pluck vegetation directly from the ground. Pollen analysis indicates wooly rhinos ate woody plants (including conifers, willows and alders), along with flowers, forbs and mosses. Isotope studies on horns show they had a seasonal feeding pattern. Different areas of horn growth suggest they mainly grazed in summer, and browsed on shrubs and branches in the winter. [Source: Wikipedia]

Comparisons with living perissodactyls (rhinos and tapirs) confirm that the woolly rhinoceros was a hindgut fermentor with a single stomach, consuming cellulose-rich, protein-poor fodder. It had to consume a heavy amount of food to account for the low nutritive content of its diet. Woolly rhinos living in the Arctic during the Last Glacial Maximum consumed approximately equal volumes of forbs, such as Artemisia, and graminoids.

Life of the Woolly Rhinos

It is estimated that woolly rhinoceroses could reach around 40 years of age, like their modern relatives. In 2014, Shpansky estimated the growth of woolly rhinoceros based on several lower jaw fragments and limb bones. A one-month-old calf was figured to be about 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) in length and 72 centimeters (2.36 feet) tall at the shoulder. The most intensive growth occurred during the juvenile stage around 3 to 4 years of age when the shoulder height increased to 1.3 meters (4.3 feet). At 7 to 10 years of age, woolly rhinos became young adults with a shoulder height of 1.4–1.5 meters (4.6–4.9 feet). At around 14 years of age, they became fully mature, with a shoulder height of 1.6 meters (5.2 feet). [Source: Wikipedia]

With their massive size and horns, adults had few predators, but young individuals could be attacked by animals such as hyenas and cave lions. A skull was found with trauma indicating an attack from a feline, but the animal survived to adulthood.

Woolly rhinos may have used their horns for combat, probably including intraspecific combat as recorded in cave paintings, as well as for moving snow to uncover vegetation during winter. They may have also been used to attract mates. Bull woolly rhinos were probably territorial like their modern counterparts, defending themselves from competitors, particularly during the rutting season. Fossil skulls indicate damage from the front horns of other rhinos, and lower jaws and back ribs show signs of being broken and re-formed, which may have also come from fighting. The apparent frequency of intraspecific combat, compared to recent rhinos, was likely a result of rapid climatic change during the last glacial period, when the animal faced increased stress from competition with other large herbivores.

Did Woolly Rhinos Originate From Tibet?

The oldest known species of Coelodonta, Coelodonta thibetana dates back to approximately 3.7 million years ago, with the genus being present in Siberia, Mongolia, and China during the Early Pleistocene, about 1.8 million years ago. . The woolly rhinoceros first appeared during the early Middle Pleistocene (1.25 million to 700,000 years ago in China. The oldest remains of the species in Europe, which represents the only species of Coelodonta to have been present in the region, date to approximately 450,000 years ago. [Source: Wikipedia]

Fossil evidence indicates that woolly rhinos, may have evolved in the frigid highlands of the Tibetan Plateau more than 1 million years before global cooling allowed their descendants to spread throughout much of northern Eurasia. It had previously been that cold-adapted creatures such as mammoths and whooly rhinos evolved in the Arctic. Xiaoming Wang, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in California, is researching where mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats and woolly rhinos originally evolved, which is still largely a mystery [Source: Sid Perkins, Science, September 1, 2011 ^|^]

Sid Perkins wrote in Science: “In the new study, Wang and colleagues uncovered a variety of fossils—including a skull, a jawbone, and a couple of neck vertebrae in the Himalayan foothills along the southwest Tibetan Plateau. The plateau is often called "the roof of the world" because its 2.5-million-square-kilometer area—the largest and tallest in the world—has an average elevation that exceeds 4500 meters (14,800 feet). Based on the age of the sediments surrounding the fossils, which was estimated using the magnetic characteristics of the rock as well as the other fossils entombed therein, the researchers say the fossils belong to a new species of woolly rhino that roamed the region about 3.7 million years ago. The team has dubbed the rhino, which was about the size of its modern kin but covered with shaggy fur to help preserve its body heat, Coelodonta thibetana, or "the pit-toothed creature from Tibet." ^|^

“Previous studies suggested that, at the time, the global average temperatures were as much as 3°C warmer than they are today. Also, Wang says, northern continents weren't covered with massive ice sheets that characterized the ice ages. Despite the warmth of the era, however, the Tibetan Plateau was about as cold and snowy as it is today, with an average temperature around 0°C and wintertime extremes sometimes dropping below -10°C. ^|^

The woolly rhino had several features that helped it survive the harsh Tibetan environment, the team reports online in Science. For example, the size and shape of the bony bump where the rhino's horn attached to its snout suggests that the horn had a flattened cross section, not a conical one like modern rhinos. That flattened profile, a shape also seen in later species of woolly rhinos, allowed the horn to be used to sweep snow from the ground and uncover low-growing vegetation. When the ice ages came along and harsh conditions spread to lower altitudes, C. thibetana and its descendants were evolutionarily primed to take advantage and expand across northern Eurasia, Wang and his colleagues contend.

range of the woolly rhino, including fossil sites

Woolly Rhino DNA Extracted From Hyena Feces

In January 2024, scientists announced they had reconstructed the mitochondrial genome of a European Woolly Rhinoceros for the first time — using DNA extracted from fossilized hyena feces. Tim Newcomb wrote in Popular Mechanics: The research team behind this project—the results of which were published in the journal Biology Letters—says that the demise of the Coelodonta antiquitatis, an “iconic species of the Eurasian Pleistocene megafauna,” started around 10,000 years ago. Despite early recovery of several specimens from archaeological sites, no genomes of the population have been available. All genomic data originated exclusively from Siberian populations. [Source: Tim Newcomb, Popular Mechanics, January 31, 2024]

So, the research team turned to two caves in Germany, where they located fossilized feces of hyenas—a leading predator of the rhino. “Using coprolites [fossilized feces] of cave hyenas recovered from Middle Paleolithic layers of two caves in Germany,” the authors wrote, “we isolated and enriched predator and prey DNA to assemble the first European woolly rhinoceros mitogenomes in addition to cave hyena mitogenomes.”

The team says that the sequences unfortunately suggest “considerable DNA degradation,” which could limit final conclusions, but they were able to show how the mitogenomes of the European woolly rhino are genetically distinct from the Siberian woolly rhino. The data suggests that there was a “split of the populations potentially coinciding with the earliest fossil records of woolly rhinoceros in Europe,” which could date to around 450,000 years ago.

Extracting information on the woolly rhino from ancient poop may not be over. “There are several mitogenomes of European (and Asian) cave hyenas available, so our results are an addition to these that might help elucidate population dynamics,” Peter Seeber, a study author from the University of Konstanz in Germany, told IFL Science.

The European woolly rhino displays thousands of years of deviation from the Siberian population. “Insights into the population dynamics of (sub)species that have gone extinct probably because of a changing climate,” Seeber told IFL Science, “may help predict future developments and the fate of extant wildlife populations.” Adding to the intrigue, Seeber tells IFL Science that the occurrence of variability in the woolly rhino’s mitochondrial lineages indicates that the population dynamics over its vast range could have been quite complex. “We need, of course, a lot more data from various locations throughout Europe for solid conclusions on population dynamics and ecology of this species,” ” he said.

Woolly Rhinos Didn’t Go to America Like Mammoths

Sumatran rhino, a woolly rhino relative

The woolly rhino lived primarily in Europe and Siberia. One of the greatest mysteries surrounding it is why it didn't cross the Bering Bridge, the land bridge between northeastern Russia and Alaska, and take up residence in North America. Sarah Gibbens of National Geographic wrote: “Woolly mammoths, steppe bison, reindeer, and other species are thought to have crossed it during the Pleistocene. But what particular adaptations woolly rhinos had to survive in this climate are also unclear. [Source: Sarah Gibbens, National Geographic January 24, 2018]

“Scientist have a few theories as to why the woolly rhino went extinct but no solid explanation. One study published in August 2017 suggested they may have gone extinct from a genetic abnormality. A look at their fossilized remains found many contain a cervical neck rib, a condition associated with birth defects. The study suggested that inbreeding could have therefore factored into their decline.”

Olga Potapova is a scientist at The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs South Dakota, a preservation and research organization, referred to two theories as to why the species went extinct. The first is that climactic changes impacted the feeding habitats of herbivores, which in turn led to the extinction of larger carnivores like cave lions and saber-tooth cats. The second theory is that they were killed off by people. "Recent research of the ancient DNA of many extinct herbivores showed that populations declined and their genetic pool degenerated well before human appearances on these two continents," she says, suggesting the former theory is more likely.

Woolly Rhinos and the Sumatran Rhinoceros

Sumatran rhinoceros may have evolved from woolly rhinos. The Sumatran rhinoceros in the smallest and hairiest of the five rhino species. It is believed to be possibly related to the extinct woolly rhinoceros, having been around for around for 20 million years. A mature Sumatran rhino typically stands about 100 to 150 centimeters (50 to 75 inches) at the shoulder, with a body length of 240 to 315 centimeters (94 to 124 inches) and weighs around 600 to 950 kilograms (1,320 to 2,095 pounds). Like the African species, it has two horns; the larger is the front (25 to 79 centimeters), with the smaller usually less than 10 centimeters long. The males have much larger horns than the females.

Hair can range from dense (the densest hair in young calves) to scarce. The color of these rhinos is reddish brown. They have relatively few skin wrinkles except around the neck. Their body is short and has stubby legs. They also have a prehensile lip. Under certain conditions it will grow a thick coat of hair like that of the long-extinct woolly rhino.

Little is known about the Sumatran rhino. It is rarely seen in the wild and likes dense forests. One scientist who spent three years studying them in northern Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park — one of the areas they are said to be most plentiful — only saw one once when it charged through his camp unexpectedly. Most of what is known about them has been deduced from specimens kept in captivity.

Woolly Rhinos and Humans

While woolly rhinoceroses shared the same habitat with humans, direct evidence of interaction between the two species is relatively rare. Only 11 percent of the known sites of prehistoric Siberian tribes have remains or images of the animal. Many rhinoceros remains are found in caves (such as the Kůlna Cave in Central Europe), which were not the natural habitat of either rhinos or humans. They are presumed to have been deposited there by large predators such as cave lions and hyenas. [Source: Wikipedia]

Indications that early humans hunted or scavenged the rhinoceros come from markings on the animal's bones. One specimen had injuries caused by human weaponry, with traces of a wound from a sharp object marking the shoulder and thigh, and a preserved spear was found near the carcass. Heavily battered and beaten rhinoceros bones lined with slash marks have been found at few Last Glacial, late Middle Paleolithic sites such as the Gudenus Cave (Austria) and the open air site of Königsaue (Saxony-Anhalt, Germany). The bones were possibly broken open to extract the nutritious bone marrow.

Both horns and bones of the rhinoceros were used as raw materials for tools and weapons, as were remains from other animals. In what is now Zwoleń, Poland, a device was made from a battered woolly rhinoceros pelvis. A half-meter spear throwers, made from a woolly rhinoceros horn about 27,000 years ago was found on the banks of the Yana River. A 13,300-year-old spear found on Bolshoy Lyakhovsky Island has a tip made of rhinoceros horn, the furthest north a human artifact has ever been found.

Many cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic depict woolly rhinoceroses. The animal’s horns and body shape make is easy to distinguish and not confuse with other animals. About 20 Paleolithic drawings of woolly rhinos were known before the discovery of the Chauvet Cave in France. The images at Chauvet are dated at over 31,000 years old, and engraved on cave walls or drawn in red or black. One scene depicts two rhinos fighting each other with their horns. Other illustrations are found in the Rouffignac and Lascaux caves. Some images show rhinoceroses struck with spears or arrows, signifying human hunting. The site of Dolní Věstonice in Moravia, Czech Republic, was found with more than seven hundred statuettes of animals, many of woolly rhinoceroses.

Frozen Woolly Rhinos Found in the Melting Siberian Permafrost

In December 2020, Russian scientists unveiled the 12,000-year-old carcass of a juvenile woolly rhinoceros, found in permafrost in the diamond-producing region of Yakutia, Siberia. .Reuters reported: “Similar finds in Russia's vast Siberian region have happened with increasing regularity as climate change, which is warming the Arctic at a faster pace than the rest of the world, has thawed the ground in some areas long locked in permafrost. The rhino was found at a river in August 2020 complete with all its limbs, some of its organs, its horn — a rarity for such finds — and even its wool, Valery Plotnikov, a scientist, was quoted as saying by Yakutia 24, a local media outlet. Plotnikov said the woolly rhino may have lived in the late Pleistocene era, which ended 11,700 years ago. The beast appeared to use its horn to gather food, judging by the erosion marks found on it, the scientist said. [Source: Reuters December 31, 2020]

Sasha is the name given to a 10,000-year-old woolly rhino found in 2015 and reconstructed from mummified remains. According to National Geographic: “Russian scientists aren't quite sure if their Sasha was male or female...Unlike woolly mammoths, which also lived during the Ice Age, woolly rhino remains are rare to find. Their place on the evolutionary timeline is less clear. In December 2017, after months of work, a taxidermist from the Yakutian Academy of Sciences took the small, slumped remains of Sasha and brought them back to life. A team of scientists from the Paleontological Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Sakha Academy of Sciences in northeastern Russia has also been studying Sasha for years. [Source: Sarah Gibbens, National Geographic January 24, 2018

“The remains, gray when they were first found, were cleaned. Scientists were surprised to see the young rhino was originally a light strawberry blond color. An analysis of Sasha's teeth revealed the animal was about seven months old when it died. That it was so young was a surprise to scientists, reports the Siberian Times. Sasha is big for seven months old. It measures almost five feet long and stands about two and a half feet tall. Modern rhinos in Africa typically don't reach that size until 18 months of age.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ancientfoods.wordpress.com ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

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