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Kelly McSweeney

Nov 10th 2021

Prehistoric Rhino Fossils Reveal an Epic Past

If a prehistoric rhino roamed the world today, it would be heavier than an elephant and taller than a giraffe. A new study from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Harvard reveals details about a newly discovered species of giant rhinos (Paraceratherium linxiaense) that lived in the Tibetan plateau region during the Oligocene Epoch, approximately 26.5 million years ago.

Getting to Know the Giant Rhino

The giant rhino is considered the largest land mammal that ever lived, according to a press release from CAS. Although scientists have known about these rhinos for a while, the new fossils provide clues about how ancient rhinos dispersed across Asia.

The paleontologists examined a completed, preserved, 3.8-foot-long skull of a P. linxiaense rhino, complete with a jaw bone and part of the spine. The giant fossils were extracted in 2015 from a site in the Linxia Basin in Gansu Province, China, located at the northeastern border of the Tibetan Plateau.

The prehistoric rhino’s remains were found in a high-altitude plateau where yaks and antelopes roam in today’s cold and dry Tibetan climate. But back in the giant rhino’s day, the region was likely in an open woodland environment, as the researchers explain in Communications Biology. They report:

“Late Oligocene tropical conditions allowed the giant rhino to return northward to Central Asia, implying that the Tibetan region was still not established as a high-elevation plateau. The largest land mammal might have been able to migrate freely, passing along the eastern coast of the Tethys in the western part of Tibet, and even through some lowlands within what is now the plateau.”

Putting Giant Fossils Into Context

The prehistoric rhino would have been tall enough to eat flowers on the third or fourth floor of a building, according to National Geographic explorer Pierre-Olivier Antoine, a rhino paleontologist at the University of Montpellier who reviewed the study.

Unfortunately, National Geographic reports that some ancient rhino fossils have been lost due to human conflicts. In 2006, the Pakistani army bombed Dera Bugti, a town that held a collection of 300 fossils.

The P. linxiaense’s fossils are safely preserved in the Hezheng Paleozoological Museum in China. In the future, the researchers are hoping to reconstruct the giant rhino’s muscles and develop a better sense of its body mass.

Discoveries like that of the giant rhino fossil not only reveal clues about our past, but they can also put today’s animals in context. Present-day rhinos are much smaller, maxing out at around 10 feet tall and around 2,000 pounds, though they are still giants compared with the rest of the animal kingdom. Sadly, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) reports that there are only around 27,000 left in the world. This is a fraction of the 500,000 rhinos that existed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Populations have dwindled due to a combination of poaching and habitat loss.

The good news is conservation efforts have led to some restoration of rhino populations. For example, WWF says that in Africa, black rhino numbers have doubled — from a historic low just 20 years ago to around 5,600 today. Now, there are 27,000 left in the world. This is a fraction of the 500,000 rhinos that existed at the beginning of the twentieth century.

As WWF explains, rhinos are important to save because they are one of the oldest groups of mammals, virtually living fossils. Populations have dwindled due to a combination of poaching and habitat loss. The latest efforts to save the modern rhino include tackling wildlife crime and protecting key populations, community-based conservation, and even high-tech solutions, such as satellite trackers.

Are you interested in science and innovation? We are, too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.

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