Until 1929, this floofy two-horned tank was only seen cavorting in cave art. Its bones have since been discovered all over the place, like in Spain, China, under the A14 towards Cambridge, or in the hilariously named “Doggerland” that was once between France and the UK. But bones aren’t the only thing it left behind.
Frozen in time
Thanks to it being found in ice and oil seeps, and not having quite as many millions of years in the way, there’s more chance of us finding a woolly rhino “mummy”. And we have, like the headless one in Siberia, and the two hairless ones in Ukraine. So missing either the “woolly” or “identifiably rhino” parts. Oh Mother Earth, you’re such a tease!
Fortunately, our luck improved in 2015. A baby, named “Sasha” after its discoverer, was found in the permafrost of an ancient Siberian river bank, with most of its skull, one eye, and grey-brown hair intact. After giving it a good scrub, we realised that Sasha was actually a red-head,
and despite being only 7 months old, the same size as a modern rhino more than twice its age!
Before you get too excited about DNA traces and whatnot, there’s no Pleistocene Park on the horizon, as there are no living relatives close enough for cross-breeding. The nearest is the Sumatran rhino, but with fewer than 80 left, and the death of the last Malaysian male just two weeks ago, it’s probably more concerned with growing its own.
Speaking of relatives, Sasha probably lived in a family group, and judging by the gnawed bone stash found in a Czech Republic cave, it was top of the spotted hyena’s menu. Spanning Europe, Asia and north Africa, the woolly rhino may have had the widest range of any rhino, living or dead. But where did it come from? The top of the world, of course!
From peak to bleak
The oldest species trained for chillier temperatures on the Tibetan plateau 3.6 million years ago, and also used its flatter, wider horn to sweep snow. As the climate shifted, it moved south, but for all its roaming, it never quite managed to crack America.
For some reason, unlike the enterprising mammoth, the woolly rhino never made the trek across the Bering Strait. Despite its wool, it wasn’t kitted out for extremely heavy snow, so the tundra wasn’t quite as welcoming. Back home became even less so, with higher temperatures and more wooded areas, which can get in the way somewhat if you’re a massive hairy heap. It hung on for longer in Siberia’s open plains, but finally became extinct about 11,000 years ago. Can you guess the final nail in the coffin?
The (sort of) writing on the wall
Yes, humans were at it again. But we did preserve its memory, like in the 30,000 year-old Chauvet Cave in France. In these paintings, the rhinos have a vertical black band across their flanks. I would love to think that was a saddle, because how kickass would that have been? Plus it would probably still be around today. Otherwise, it was either an actual marking, or just some inept artists who didn’t know how to blend colours properly.
Good thing we’ve moved on since then.
Latin: Genus name is Coelodonta, and there are four recognised species. C. antiquitatis was the first to be discovered, and thibetana is the oldest.
What? I’ll give you two guesses from the name.
Where? Europe, North Africa and Asia during the Pliocene and Pleistocene, 3.6 million to 11,700 years ago.
How big? About 3-3.8 metres / 10-13 feet long and 2 metres / 7 feet tall.
Probable motto: I can’t exactly take my coat off, can I?
They have a living relative. Do they need my help at all?
Yes. There are a whopping 80 Sumatran rhinos left in the world and only one female in Malaysia, so those of you with a warm heart, you can check out their campaigns here:
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
“A14 road workers find woolly mammoth bones“. 2018. BBC News.
Amos, Jonathan. 2011. “‘Oldest’ woolly rhino discovered“. BBC News.
Baraniuk, Chris. 2015. “The story of rhinos and how they conquered the Earth“. BBC Earth.
Deng, Tao et al. 2019. “Review: Implications of vertebrate fossils for paleo-elevations of the Tibetan Plateau“. Global and Planetary Change 174:58-69.
Diedrich, Cajus G. 2012. “An Ice Age spotted hyena Crocuta crocuta spelaea (Goldfuss 1823) population, their excrements and prey from the Late Pleistocene hyena den of the Sloup Cave in the Moravian Karst, Czech Republic“. Historical Biology 24(2):161-185.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Woolly rhinoceros“. Britannica.com.
“Extinct woolly rhino“. No date. International Rhino Foundation.
Gibbens, Sarah. 2018. “Extinct Woolly Rhino Reconstructed From Mummified Remains“. National Geographic.
Lewis, Tanya. 2015. “10,000-Year-Old Remains of Extinct Woolly Rhino Baby Discovered“. LiveScience.
“Malaysia’s last male Sumatran rhino dies“. 2019. The Guardian, 27th May.
Perkins, Sid. 2011. “The rise of the woolly rhino“. Science.
Simeonovski, Velizar. 2016. “The woolly rhinos of Chauvet“. The Wild Art of Velizar Simeonovski.
Simpson, Jack. 2015. “10,000-year-old woolly rhino carcass discovered with fur, eyes and horns still intact“. The Independent.
Stuart, Anthony J., and Lister, Adrian M. 2012. “Extinction chronology of the woolly rhinoceros Coelodonta antiquitatis in the context of late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions in northern Eurasia“. Quaternary Science Reviews 51:1-17.
Featured image credit: “Woolly rhino”, by Daniel Eskridge