A superbly preserved baby woolly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis) has been found protruding from the banks of the Semyulyakh River in northeastern Siberia.
During the Ice Age, woolly rhinoceroses roamed Europe and northern Asia. Their record is preserved both in several specimens frozen in permafrost and in cave art, and DNA has revealed their relationship to living species.
Credit: Public domain: A drawing of a woolly rhinoceros from Chauvet Cave, France.
However, we know less about their young. Only fragmentary specimens have been found up until now, and our ancestors apparently didn't consider them the paleolithic equivalent of photogenic.
This gap has made the recent discovery, nicknamed Sasha, particularly significant. The find was made by businessman Alexander Banderov, after whom the rhino was named. While on a hunting trip, Banderov saw Sasha's hair poking from a thawing riverbank and thought it was a reindeer carcass. As thawing increased, however, the horn became visible.
“The part of the carcass that stuck out of the ice was eaten by wild animals, but the rest of it was inside the permafrost and preserved well," Banderov told The Siberian Times.
“The find is absolutely unique. We can count a number of adult woolly rhinos found around the world on fingers of one hand. A baby rhino was never found before,” said Albert Protopopov, Head of the Mammoth Fauna Department of Sakha Republic Academy of Sciences, adding that only one grown woolly rhino has been found this century.
Credit: Academy of Sciences Republic of Sakha. Sasha's full remains, showing how much survives.
Protopopov attributed the shortage of rhino calf finds to excellent parental care. “The possible explanation to it is that rhinos bred very slowly. Mothers protected baby rhinos really well, so that cases of successful attacks on them were extremely rare and the mortality rate was very low. We haven't had a chance to work with even a tooth of a baby rhino, and now we have the whole skull, the head, the soft tissues and well-preserved teeth.”
The fact that Sasha was frozen, rather than mummified, means far more information can be obtained.
Sasha was 1.5 meters (5 feet) long and 0.8 meters (2.6 feet) high. Age estimates range from 18 months to four years. Sex has not been determined, but in keeping with the name, the woolly rhino was covered in thick hair.
While their fellow woolly pachyderms, the mammoths, lived until 3,600 years ago, woolly rhinos are thought to have died out as the Eurasian ice sheet retreated ten thousand years ago. Hunting by humans was probably a factor, as they had survived previous interglacial warm periods. It is not yet known by how much Sasha predeceased the species as a whole.
Protopopov and his team hope to extract DNA from Sasha, which may be used to settle many questions about the species. While proposals to resurrect the woolly mammoth are drawing attention, the gap between woolly rhinos and their closest living relatives, the Sumatran rhinoceros, is so large that it would probably be impossible to find a host to bear the offspring.
H/T Live Science