Animal remains found in Pleistocene sediments can be divided in two groups:
The woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) is an extinct species of rhinoceros native to the northern steppes of Eurasia that lived during the Pleistocene epoch and survived the last glacial period. The woolly rhinoceros are members of the Pleistocene megafauna.
An adult wooly rhinoceros was 3.7 metres (12 feet) in length. Two horns on the skull were made of keratin, the anterior horn being 1 metre (3 feet) in length, with a smaller horn between its eyes. It had thick, long fur, small ears, short, thick legs, and a stocky body. Cave paintings suggest a wide dark band between the front and hind legs, but it is not universal and identification of rhinoceros as woolly rhinoceros is uncertain. The woolly rhinoceros used its horns to sweep snow away from vegetation so it could eat in the winter, and is also thought to have used its horns for defensive purposes and to attract mates.
As the last and most derived member of the Pleistocene rhinoceros lineage, the woolly rhinoceros was supremely well adapted to its environment. Stocky limbs and thick woolly pelage made it well suited to the steppe-tundra environment prevalent across the Palearctic ecozone during the Pleistocene glaciations. Its geographical range expanded and contracted with the alternating cold and warm cycles, forcing populations to migrate as glaciers receded. Like the vast majority of rhinoceroses, the body plan of the woolly rhinoceros adhered to the conservative morphology, like the first rhinoceroses seen in the late Eocene. A close relative, the Giant Unicorn (Elasmotherium), had a more southern range.
Controversy has long surrounded the precise dietary preference of Coelodonta as past investigations have found both grazing and browsing modes of life to be plausible. The palaeodiet of the woolly rhinoceros has been reconstructed using several lines of evidence. Climatic reconstructions indicate the preferred environment to have been cold and arid steppe-tundra, with large herbivores forming an important part of the feedback cycle. Pollen analysis shows a prevalence of grasses and sedges within a more complicated vegetation mosaic.
A strain vector biomechanical investigation of the skull, mandible and teeth of a well-preserved last cold stage individual recovered from Whitemoor Haye, Staffordshire, revealed musculature and dental characteristics that support a grazing feeding preference. In particular, the enlargement of the temporalis and neck muscles is consistent with that required to resist the large tugging forces generated when taking large mouthfuls of fodder from the ground. The presence of a large diastema supports this theory.
Comparisons with extant perissodactyls confirm that Coelodonta was a hindgut fermentor with a single stomach, and as such would have grazed upon cellulose-rich, protein-poor fodder. This method of digestion would have required a large throughput of food and thus links the large mouthful size to the low nutritive content of the chosen grasses and sedges.
Many species of Pleistocene megafauna, like the wooly rhinoceros, became extinct around the same time period. Human hunting is often cited as one cause. Other theories for the cause of the extinctions are climate change associated with the receding Ice age and the hyperdisease hypothesis.
Its shape was known only from prehistoric cave drawings until a completely preserved specimen (missing only the fur and hooves) was discovered in a tar pit in Starunia, Poland. The specimen, an adult female, is now on display in the Polish Academy of Sciences's Museum of Natural History in Kraków. The woolly rhinoceros roamed much of Northern Europe and was common in the then cold, arid desert that is southern England and the North Sea today. During Greenland Stadial 2 (The Last Glacial Maximum) the North Sea did not exist as sea levels were up to 125 meters lower than today.
The woolly rhinoceros co-existed with woolly mammoths and several other extinct larger mammals. No specimens have been dated in the U.K. after 15,000 14C years B.P.
Recent radiocarbon dating indicates that populations survived as recently as 8,000 B.C. in Western Siberia. However, the accuracy of this date is uncertain as several radiocarbon plateaus exist around this time. The extinction does not coincide with the end of the last ice age but does coincide however, with a minor yet severe climatic reversal that lasted for about 1,000-1,250 years, the Younger Dryas (GS1 - Greenland Stadial 1), characterized by glacial readvances and severe cooling globally, a brief interlude in the continuing warming subsequent to the termination of the last major ice age (GS2), thought to have been due to a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation in the ocean due to huge influxes of cold, fresh water from the preceding sustained glacial melting during the warmer Interstadial (GI1 - Greenland Interstadial 1 - ca. 16,000 - 11,450 14c years B.P.). A relative, the hairy sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), still lives in Southeast Asia, as an endangered species.
Prehistoric rhino reveals secrets BBC - December 6, 2012
The preserved body of a woolly rhinoceros has revealed new insights into how this now extinct giant animal once lived. The woolly rhino was once one of the most abundant large mammals living in Eurasia, but only a handful of preserved carcasses have been found.
Pre-Ice Age Woolly Rhino Found in Tibet The Epoch Times - September 24, 2011
The fossil of a previously unknown kind of woolly rhino was recently uncovered way up in the Himalayas. The animal was named Coelodonta thibetana, the Tibetan woolly rhino, and appears to have existed around 3.7 million years ago, before the Ice Age set in.
Tibet Was Cradle of Evolution for Pre-Ice Age Giants Live Science - September 1, 2011
High on the Tibetan Plateau, paleontologists have uncovered the skull of a previously unknown species of ancient rhino, a woolly furred animal that came equipped with a built-in snow shovel on its face. This curiosity, a flat, paddle-like horn that would have allowed it to brush away snow and find vegetation beneath, suggests the woolly rhinoceros was well-adapted for a cold, icy life in the Himalayas about 1 million years before the Ice Age. Those adaptations may have left the rhino perfectly poised to spread across Asia when global temperatures plummeted, ushering in the Ice Age.
'Oldest' woolly rhino discovered BBC - September 1, 2011
A woolly rhino fossil dug up on the Tibetan Plateau is believed to be the oldest specimen of its kind yet found. The creature lived some 3.6 million years ago - long before similar beasts roamed northern Asia and Europe in the ice ages that gripped those regions. The discovery team says the existence of this ancient rhino supports the idea that the frosty Tibetan foothills of the Himalayas were the evolutionary cradle for these later animals.
Woolly rhino's ancient migration BBC - November 18, 2008
First live rhinoceros birth from frozen-thawed semen PhysOrg - November 13, 2008
Woolly Rhinoceros Discovery Is Oldest in Europe Live Science - November 12, 2008
A woolly rhinoceros was just 12 years old when it died in a pool of meltwater flowing off an inland glacier in Germany. That was 460,000 years ago. Now, scientists have pieced together the skull of this extinct mega-mammal and found it to be the oldest woolly rhinoceros in Europe.
'Extraordinary' woolly rhino finds BBC - October 30, 2002
The remains of four woolly rhinos have been unearthed in an English quarry.
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