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Oldest woolly rhino emerges from frozen wilderness

By Colin Ricketts - 17 Sep 2011 15:5:1 GMT
Oldest woolly rhino emerges from frozen wilderness

A Florida professor says that the coldest places on earth are the final remaining frontier for making new discoveries of extinct animals after discovering a previously unknown species of woolly rhino.

Yang Wang from Florida State University is a geochemistry specialist and battled some of the world's unkindest environments to get to the outback of Tibet with a team intent on finding something unique in a fossil hunting mecca, the Wanda Basin.

Their work bore impressive fruit in the shape of a skull, complete with lower jaw of Coelodonta thibetana, or the Tibetan Woolly Rhino.

"This is the oldest, most primitive woolly rhino every found," Wang said of the discovery, made on a trip started in 2007, and reported in Science.

At around 6 feet in height and up to 14 feet long, the Tibetan Woolly Rhino had two horns, one an impressive three feet in length.

At 3.7 million years old, it's also the oldest woolly rhino ever found by some distance, predating the previous earliest find by some 1.1 million years.

Professor Wang's expertise in chemistry was vital in finding out how this ancient giant lived and why it may have died out.

"We look at the chemistry of the teeth and bones, to see what the animals ate and what kind of environment they lived in," she said.

The rhino's diet of high altitude grasses suggests it may simply have moved down the mountain side to warmer climes as the ice age froze its original home.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing now has the fossil and many of the expedition's other finds.

Wang can't wait to get back in an expedition planned for next year.

She said: "Cold places, such as Tibet, the Arctic and the Antarctic, are where the most unexpected discoveries will be made in the future - these are the remaining frontiers that are still largely unexplored."

Top Image: Artist Julie Naylor's rendering of Tibetan woolly rhino. Credit: © Julie Naylor