DHARAMSHALA, September 5: The discovery of a newly identified species of primitive woolly rhino, dating to 3.6 million years ago on the Tibetan plateau, scientists say, shows that the isolated Himalayan land served as the evolutionary cradle for Ice Age mega plant-eaters.
Top: Woolly rhino skull and jaw. Bottom: Woolly rhino illustration by Julie Naylor. (Photo/Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)
A paper published in this week’s issue of the journal, Science, reveals the discovery of Coelodonta thibetana, a species much older and more primitive than its Ice Age (Pleistocene) descendants in the mammoth steppes across much of Europe and Asia.
A team of geologists and paleontologists led by Xiaoming Wang, from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and Qiang Li, of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, uncovered a complete skull and lower jaw of the new species of woolly rhino in 2007, at the foothills of the Himalayas on Tibetan Plateau.
"The extinct Tibetan woolly rhino had developed special adaptations for sweeping snow using its flattened, forward-leaning horn to reveal vegetation, a useful behaviour for survival in the harsh Tibetan climate," Wang explained.
In addition to the woolly rhino, the team also uncovered extinct species of three-toed horse (Hipparion), Tibetan bharal (Pseudois, also known as blue sheep), chiru (Pantholops, also known as Tibetan antelope), snow leopard (Uncia), badger (Meles), as well as 23 other kinds of mammals.
"This discovery clarifies the origin of the woolly rhinoceros - and perhaps much of the now extinct, cold-adapted, Pleistocene Eurasian megafauna - as the high-altitude environments of the Zanda Basin of the primordial Pliocene Himalayas," said Richard Lane, of the National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences.
Animal experts largely agree that Tibet was indeed the birthplace for many species that later survived through the Ice Age and beyond.