Found: fossils of ancient hairy mammal in Tibet

A team of scientists from the U. S., China, and Finland has uncovered a fossilized woolly rhino in the western Himalayas of Tibet. This is hardly the first woolly rhino that scientists have unearthed (in fact indigenous people of Siberia have been digging them up for ages). What makes this particular specimen of the Cousin It of prehistoric mammals particularly significant is that it’s older than all the others.

Back in 2007, the team set out for the Zanda basin of the Himalayas because of the plethora of fossils it had yielded in the past. They found a complete skull and lower jaw of an ancient mammal that stood an estimated 6 feet tall and 12 to 14 feet long (so about the size of a Ford Explorer, but less fat). This animal had some pretty awesome horns – one on the tip of its schnauzer at 3 feet long, and another smaller one between the eyes. In other words, it’s pretty similar to the modern rhino….but with lotsa hair.

Artistic reconstruction. CREDIT: Julie Naylor.

Originally, scientists thought that woolly rhinos appeared at the beginning of the Pliestocene era slash the last Ice Age slash about 2.6 million years ago. But, the Zanda fossils (termed Coelodonta thibetana sp.) are close to 3.7 million years old, which puts them in the Pliocene before the last Ice Age got started. Since they lived in the harsh environment of Tibetan mountains, these primitive woolly rhinos were preadapted with their shaggy dos to the cold and didn’t freeze their butts off when the world turned into an ice cube (slight exaggeration, I realize).

Not a new technique, but nevertheless cool: A geochemist analyzed the chemical content of the rhino’s fossilized teeth with a fancy gadget called a mass spectrometer to see what it ate and where it lived. Apparently this woolly rhino pretty much stuck with high altitude grasses and moved from the high basin to lower altitudes when the Ice Age rolled in.

In case you’re curious: They published the findings in Science.


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