Researchers in the Himalayas have uncovered a woolly rhinoceros fully a million years older than the ones that roamed Europe and Asia in the ice age.
The discovery, in an area known as the Zanda Basin in modern Tibet, is described in the current issue of the journal Science. It suggests that the woolly rhino, and other giant ice age mammals, may have originated in the Himalayas.
The rhino dates to the Pleistocene period, 3.6 million years ago.
“Previously we had no idea where the ice age megafauna came from; now we know at least some of them probably came from Tibet,” said an author of the study, Xiaoming Wang of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. “They basically had a competitive advantage when the ice age came along — they were adapted to cold climate and high altitudes.”
Dr. Wang and his colleagues unearthed a very complete skull of the rhino, along with a bit of the neck and a few limb bones.
The rhinoceros probably had long fur to keep it warm and a flattened horn to sweep snow out of its way.
In addition to the rhinoceros, Dr. Wang and his colleagues discovered fossils of an ancient snow leopard, a three-toed horse, a sheep, a badger and 23 other kinds of mammals.
The origins of the giant mammals of the ice age have not been well studied. Some scientists have suggested they came from the Arctic. But the new fossils tell another story.
“We can call Tibet a cradle of the ice age, or at least ice age megafauna,” Dr. Wang said.