Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Scientists Unearth Oldest Woolly Rhino In Tibet

redOrbit - A 3.6-million-year-old woolly rhinoceros fossil discovered in Tibet in 2007 indicates that some giant mammals may have evolved in the Tibetan highlands before the beginning of the Ice Age, according to experts.

In a paper published on September 2 in the magazine Science, paleontologists from the Natural History Museum (NHM) of Los Angeles County and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who discovered the rhino’s complete skull and lower jaw, argue that the beast adapted to global cooling before it even happened.

The extinction of giants from the Ice Age such as woolly mammoths and giant sloths has been widely studied, but it has remained unclear about where these giant beasts came from, and how they acquired their adaptations for living in extreme cold environments.

The team, led by NHM’s Xiaoming Wang and CAS’s Qiang Li, said among the special adaptations was a flat horn useful for sweeping snow away to find vegetation. With special adaptations, the giant mammals were able to spread to northern Asia and Europe once the Ice Age started 2.6 million years ago.

The fossil is believed to be the oldest specimen of its kind yet to be found. It lived nearly 3.6 million years ago, long before similar animals that roamed northern Asia and Europe in the Ice Age.

“The Tibetan Plateau may have been another cradle of the Ice Age giants,” report the researchers.

The woolly rhino fossil was well preserved — “just a little crushed, so not quite in the original shape; but the complete skull and lower jaw are preserved,” Xiaoming told BBC News.