Woolly rhino reveals Arctic Britain

March 6, 2013
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Woolly rhino skullThe Staffordshire woolly rhino skeleton was one of Britain’s most significant fossil finds, scientists say

Scientists studying an exceptionally well-preserved woolly rhinoceros have revealed details of what Britain’s environment was like 42,000 years ago.

The beast’s remains were discovered in Staffordshire in 2002, buried alongside other preserved organisms such as beetles and non-biting midges.

The research team used these climate-sensitive insects to calculate that summer temperatures in Britain would have averaged just 10C, and dropped to -22C in winter.

The results are published in the Journal of Quaternary Science.

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The discovery of the preserved woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) skeleton in a quarry at Whitemoor Haye was “the most significant fossil find of a large mammal in Britain for over 100 years,” said team leader Professor Danielle Schreve from Royal Holloway, University of London.

“Woolly rhino bones and teeth are not uncommon in Britain but they are frequently heavily gnawed by predators, especially spotted hyenas.”

Alongside the woolly rhinoceros skeleton, palaeontologists uncovered remains of other mammals, such as mammoths and reindeer, as well as well-preserved insects.

The research team, comprising scientists from the UK and and Netherlands, analysed these fossils for clues about what the environment in Britain was like at the time of the organisms’ death.

Britain’s Arctic tundra

Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the rhinoceros and other organisms lived during the middle part of the last Ice Age, known as the Devensian glaciation in Britain.

But the presence of preserved beetles and midges at the site were “particularly important” for the teams’ investigation. Prof Schreve explained, “they’re very sensitive to changes in climate, so they can give us direct insight into prevailing temperatures at the time.”

Woolly rhino skeleton after its discovery in 2002Woolly rhino skeleton after its discovery in a Staffordshire quarry in 2002

According to the study: “the beetle remains are strongly indicative of severely cold and continental climates akin to Asia today.”

Many of the fossilised insects no longer exist in Britain, with some now found only northern Siberia or the high plateaux of central Asia.

According to Prof Schreve, the climatic conditions in Britain 42,000 years ago were “slightly warmer… compared to the earlier and late parts of the Devensian, with summer temperatures around 8-11C but winter temperatures down as low as -16 to -22C”.

During this era, Britain would have looked more like an Arctic tundra landscape, where grass and herbs sustained large grazing animals such as woolly mammoths, reindeer, bison and horses.

Predators including wolves and hyenas also roamed freely.

Untimely death

The quality of the woolly rhinoceros specimen investigated for the study, complete with plant remains still in its teeth, indicates that it was buried very rapidly after it died.

The teams’ analysis showed that the individual was “at his peak” when he met his death.

“There is no evidence of disease or that he was hunted so that’s why we think it was an accidental death,” said Prof Schreve.

Researchers concluded that the animal may have met its demise after becoming stuck in quicksand while feeding at the edge of a water channel, or that it was cut off on part of a floodplain and drowned.

Woolly rhinoceros’ stocky body, thick, woolly coat and short tail and ears helped them thrive in cold, dry conditions.

However, this dense body shape may have led to the beasts’ eventual extinction: it would have been almost impossible for the animals to cope in the deep snow that arrived as the climate became warmer and wetter.

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