You’ve likely heard of the woolly mammoth, but did you know that there was also a woolly rhinoceros that graced our planet?
The woolly rhinoceros made its grand entrance around 350,000 years ago and went extinct some 14,000 years ago. In studying 14 well-preserved specimens, scientists have been able to piece together key information about the species' evolution and its ultimate extinction in Siberia. Having such intact DNA to study is a luxury, and can be attributed to the cold climates in which they were found - being frozen in permafrost for thousands of years. Scientists studying the woolly rhino's DNA have been able to map its genetic diversity, and found it to be much wider than that of modern rhinos, the woolly mammoth, and even our own.
So how did this cute, hairy behemoth go extinct? Well, it's quite the murder mystery. The original hypothesis was that the appearance of humans in the region ultimately drove the species to extinction (this is why we can’t have nice things), but a new DNA analysis reveals a different conclusion - that climate change might be the culprit. It's thought that during a brief period of warming before the last Ice Age, populations of the woolly rhino steadily declined. Conversely, recent studies have shown that the species actually went through a period of growth around the time humans appeared on the scene.
In 2011, scientists uncovered a perfectly preserved 14,000 year old dog in the same area where the woolly rhinoceros was known to roam. Experts were able to extract pieces of the puppy's last meal from its stomach - including some tissue with hair attached. After careful DNA analysis it was determined to be a near perfect match for one of our woolly friends. So, at least we can't be held completely responsible for their extinction. Score one for humans.
Image by Albert Protopopov as used by CNN