Ice Age megafauna have long been known to be associated with global cooling during the Pleistocene, and their adaptations to cold environments, such as large body size, long hair, and snow-sweeping structures, are best exemplified by the woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos. These traits were assumed to have evolved as a response to the ice sheet expansion. We report a new Pliocene mammal assemblage from a high-altitude basin in the western Himalayas, including a primitive woolly rhino. These new Tibetan fossils suggest that some megaherbivores first evolved in Tibet before the beginning of the Ice Age. The cold winters in high Tibet served as a habituation ground for the megaherbivores, which became preadapted for the Ice Age, successfully expanding to the Eurasian mammoth steppe.
A, Skull and cheek teeth of Coelodonta thibetana.
B, Origin, distribution, and dispersal of woolly rhinos in Eurasia.
(Image by DENG Tao)
Skull and lower jaw of the extinct Tibetan woolly rhino, Coelodonta thibetana.
Credit: DENG Tao
A paper in Science reveals the discovery of a primitive woolly rhino fossil in the Himalayas, which suggests some giant mammals first evolved in present-day Tibet before the beginning of the Ice Age. The extinction of Ice Age giants such as woolly mammoths and rhinos, giant sloths, and saber-tooth cats has been widely studied, but much less is known about where these giants came from, and how they acquired their adaptations for living in a cold environment.
A team of geologists and paleontologists led by Xiaoming Wang from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) and Qiang Li of Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, uncovered a complete skull and lower jaw of a new species of woolly rhino (Coelodonta thibetana) in 2007, at the foothills of the Himalayas in southwestern Tibetan Plateau.
"Cold places, such as Tibet, Arctic, and Antarctic, are where the most unexpected discoveries will be made in the future — these are the remaining frontiers that are still largely unexplored," said the NHM's Dr. Wang.
Reconstruction of Coelodonta thibetana (Illustrated by Julie Naylor)
The new rhino is 3.6 million years old (middle Pliocene), much older and more primitive than its Ice Age (Pleistocene) descendants in the mammoth steppes across much of Europe and Asia. The extinct animal had developed special adaptations for sweeping snow using its flattened horn to reveal vegetation, a useful behavior for survival in the harsh Tibetan climate. These rhinos lived at a time when global climate was much warmer and the northern continents were free of the massive ice sheets seen in the Ice Age later.
The rhino accustomed itself to cold conditions in high elevations and became pre-adapted for the future Ice Age climate. When the Ice Age eventually arrived around 2.6 million years ago, the new paper posits, the cold-loving rhinos simply descended from the high mountains and began to expand throughout northern Asia and Europe.
In addition to the new woolly rhino, the paleontologist 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.
The team's new fossil assemblage from Tibet offers new insights into the origin of the cold-adapted Pleistocene megafauna, which has usually been sought either in the arctic tundra or in the cold steppes elsewhere. This new evidence offers an alternative scenario: the harsh winters of the rising Tibetan Plateau may have provided the initial step towards cold-adaptation for several subsequently successful members of the late Pleistocene mammoth fauna in Europe, Asia, and to a lesser extent, North America. The Tibetan Plateau may have been another cradle of the Ice Age giants.
"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 H. Richard Lane of the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Earth Sciences.
A, Phylogenetic position of Coelodonta thibetana.
Deng, T., Wang, X., Fortelius, M., Li, Q., Wang, Y., Tseng, Z.J., Takeuchi, G.T., Saylor, J.E., Säilä, L.K. & Xie, G. 2011. Out of Tibet: Pliocene Woolly Rhino Suggests High-Plateau Origin of Ice Age Megaherbivores. Science. 6047: 1285–1288. doi:10.1126/science.1206594
Discovery: new woolly rhino species Coelodonta thibetana | Science Codex
Out of Tibet: Ancestral Woolly Rhino Suggests Origin of Ice Age Megaherbivores in High Plateau