After being preserved in the frozen ground of Siberia since the Pleistocene, researchers have reconstructed the remains of a tiny baby woolly rhinoceros – the only known example – revealing that it had a beautiful strawberry blonde fleece.
The remains, affectionately known as Sasha after the man who discovered them, are some of the best preserved woolly rhino remains found so far and are at least 10,000, and possibly even 34,000, years old. Originally unearthed in 2015, researchers have been studying the rare find to learn as much as possible, and now the carcass has been embalmed in a way that shows what Sasha would have looked like in real life.
The astonishingly well-preserved baby rhino has told researchers a fair amount, despite being so heavily degraded. When the carcass was first dug up from the permafrost, the scientists thought that it was covered in a thick matt of dirty gray fur. But after a thorough cleaning, they revealed something quite surprising: the baby rhino was sporting a strawberry blonde coat.
Not only that, but the find confirms another aspect of the ancient herbivore that you might assume was already well established, that the animals were indeed covered in a lot of fuzz, with an insulating undercoat, and that the individual in question had molted just before death.
“Thanks to this find, we have learned that the woolly rhinoceroses were covered with very thick hair,” researcher Valery Plotnikov told The Siberian Times. “Previously, we could judge this only from rock paintings discovered in France. Now, judging by the thick coat with the undercoat, we can conclude that the rhinoceroses were fully adapted to the cold climate very much from a young age.”
The age of this little rhino is something else of a surprise. By using the teeth to determine how old it was when it died, the scientists were able to estimate that Sasha was around seven months old. But oddly, the remains are as big as an 18-month-old modern rhino, suggesting that the Siberian rhinos were much larger and grew faster.
Despite being one of the most wide-ranging of the Pleistocene fauna, found as far west as the British Isles right across northern Europe to Chukotka and Kamchatka in the east, surprisingly little is known about its behavior and habits. Compared to the mammoth, for example, very few carcasses have turned up, meaning that even what it ate is somewhat controversial.
One of the biggest mysteries is why the animals stayed in Eurasia. At the time the rhinos were roaming the steppe, a land bridge between eastern Russia and western North America existed in Beringa, allowing mammoths and people to move east, and horses and camels to move west. But the woolly rhino stayed firmly where it was.