Woolly Rhino

Animal remains found in Pleistocene sediments can be divided in two groups:

  • Woolly Mammoth, Giant Irish Deer, Cave Bear, Musk Ox
  • Hippopotamus, Giant Sloth

    During the Pleistocene epoch of Europe and Asia - about 1.8 million years ago until about 10,000 years ago - the end of the last Ice Age - the fauna consisted of several species of rhinoceroses.

    One such species was the woolly rhinoceros - Coelodonta antiquitatis.

    Coelodonta had long, gray-brown, shaggy fur and two large horns (made of matted hair). The larger horn, at the tip of the snout, grew to be up to 3 feet (1 m) long in mature males. The woolly rhino was about 11 feet (3.5 m) long.

    The woolly rhino was an herbivore (a plant-eater). This species grazed temperate grasslands and tundra. It was adapted to eating the grass that grew on the Eurasian steppe.

    Its habitat was vast, extending from eastern Asia to the British Isles.

    However, unlike the woolly mammoth and other Pleistocene mammals, the woolly rhinoceros did not manage to migrate across the Bering Strait into North America.

    Mammoths lived in herds, the Wooly Rhino lived just as his recent relatives do, alone or in very small family groups.

    Woolly rhinoceros fossils are not uncommon and can be found throughout Europe and Asia. Well-preserved remains have been found frozen in ice and buried in oil-saturated soils.

    At Staruni in what is now the Ukraine, a complete carcass of a female rhinoceros was found buried in the mud. The combination of oil and salt prevented the remains from decomposing allowing the soft tissues to remain virtually intact. This specimen is currently mounted in the Paleontological Museum in Krakow, Poland.

    Woolly rhinoceros are clearly shown in the cave paintings of early humans. Although hunting these animals was very dangerous, the rhinos probably served as a common food source for many of the human populations of that time. Measuring nearly 6 feet at the shoulder, a little smaller than today's white rhinoceros, its size would have made it a formidable prey. With quick speed and a short temper, subduing a rhino could have easily been fatal. Rather than tackling one head on, human hunters may have used safer methods, like trapping them in pits where they could then be killed with rocks or spears.

    The woolly rhinoceros's primary defense against predators was its two horns. Some horns found have measured nearly 5 feet in length. Like modern rhinos, woolly rhinoceros had horns composed of keratin. Unlike the horns of cows, rhino horns are made of fused, fibrous constructions that are solid throughout and are not hollow with a bone core. The fibers represent greatly modified hairs and are attached to the snout by skin supported by a raised, roughened area on the skull.

    An interesting feature of the woolly rhinoceros's anterior horn is that it was flattened from side to side, rather than round like the horn of the modern rhinoceroses. It is believed that constant contact with rough vegetation, as they moved their heads back and forth while grazing, would have kept the horn worn flat. Also, the horn was probably used as a plow, allowing the animal to brush aside snow to get at underlying vegetation.

    Unable to cope with the changing climate, woolly rhinos are believed to have become extinct around 20,000 years ago toward the end of the last Ice Age. Presently, the family Rhinocerotidae contains only five living species, two in Africa and three throughout Asia. All but the Sumatran rhinoceros are virtually hairless except for the tip of the tail and a fringe on the ears. The Sumatran rhinoceros, stranded on the island of Sumatra during the retreat of the last ice sheet, is covered with a fairly dense coat of hair and is believed to be the closest living relative of the woolly rhinoceros.


    Extraordinary' woolly rhino finds

    October 30, 2002 - BBC

    The remains of four woolly rhinos have been unearthed in an English quarry.

    Scientists describe the group find at Whitemoor Haye in Staffordshire as "extraordinary" and one of the best Ice Age discoveries of its type in Northern Europe in recent years.

    In addition to the great beasts, researchers have also dug out a remarkable range of superbly preserved plants and insects. One of the rhinos even has plant material still stuck to its teeth, giving possible clues to its last meal.

    Taken together, the specimens should enable archaeologists to build up a detailed picture of what life was like in this particular corner of the UK 30-50,000 years ago.

    "We'll be able to piece together the whole Ice Age environment in that area by the banks of the River Trent," said Simon Buteux, director of the field archaeology unit at the University of Birmingham.

    "The plants in particular are beautifully preserved - they look as if they were buried last week quite frankly. And in amongst them are remains of beetles which are very sensitive to the climate, so this will give us good clues to what the local environment was back then."

    The initial woolly rhino (Coelodonta antiquus) discovery was made by quarryman Ray Davies, who pulled up a massive skull in the bucket of his digger.

    Researchers have recovered most of the front end of the beast. They say it is the most complete woolly rhino specimen found in the UK in modern times. The bones are exceptionally well preserved. Usually, remains have been scavenged by predators and only fragments survive.

    The dig has also uncovered bones from a mammoth, reindeer, wild horse, bison and a wolf.

    "We'd love to find evidence of human activity - Neanderthals perhaps - but we think this period was simply too cold for humans to have been able to cope with," said Simon Buteux.

    "The indications for that come from the first rhino itself. The reason it is so well preserved is probably because it froze immediately after it died and this stopped it being broken up by predator or scavenger activity."

    Woolly rhino offers Ice Age clues

    Oct. 5, 2000 - BBC

    Hyena droppings, flint tools and the bones of a woolly rhino could unlock secrets to life in Leicestershire during the Ice Age.

    Archaeologists from the University of Leicester discovered the 30,000-year-old hyena den on a ridge-top near the town of Oakham during an excavation funded by English Heritage.

    They believe the den could have been used as a hunting post by early human beings, possibly Neanderthals.

    The finds will tell us a great deal more about the Ice Age.

    English Heritage chief archaeologist David Miles said the rare discovery is the first of its kind using modern excavation methods.

    Scientists hope the site will solve questions about early hunters and their environment.

    The 100 animal bones and droppings suggest they hunted in a land where animals such as the woolly rhino, normally associated with cold areas, coexisted with spotted hyenas, only found in Africa today.

    The "leaf point" may have been used as a spearhead

    Dr Roger Jacobi, a specialist curator at the British Museum, said a three-inch long "leaf point", found among the animal bones, was probably used as a spear tip.

    "This is the best documented occurence of a leaf point that we have," he said. "It is a type similar to examples from southern Poland, dated to 38,000 years ago. There are increasing suggestions this technology may have been created by the last of the Neanderthals rather than early modern man."