Tuesday, September 20, 2011
A wild and woolly discovery: Tibetan Woolly Rino
What drew the researchers to the basin wasn't its raw beauty, however. They came to explore its buried treasures. The largely untouched Zanda Basin is a fossil hunter's paradise, and the team was determined to make scientific breakthroughs.
They did just that, finding the complete skull and lower jaw of a previously unknown and long-extinct animal. They christened it the Tibetan woolly rhino (Coelodonta thibetana). "This is the oldest, most primitive woolly rhino every found," Wang said of the team's discovery. The ancient beast stood perhaps 6 feet tall and 12 to 14 feet long. It bore two great horns. One grew from the tip of its nose and was about 3 feet long. A much smaller horn arose from between its eyes. The Tibetan woolly rhino was stocky like today's rhino but had long, thick hair. It is often mentioned in the same breath with woolly mammoths, giant sloths and sabertooth cats, all giant mammals of the period that became extinct.
Prior to the team's discovery, the oldest woolly rhino ever found was 2.6 million years old, making it an inhabitant of the Pleistocene era (2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago). But the Tibetan woolly rhino found by the team is 3.7 million years old. That means it lived during the Pliocene epoch (5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago).
The new time frame also indicates that the Tibetan woolly rhino was alive before the last Ice Age.
The expedition team also found horse, elephant and deer fossils. Most of the fossils, including the Tibetan woolly rhino's complete skull, are being kept at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, at its Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.
Wang and other members of the team, led by Xiaoming Wang, curator of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, plan to return to the basin again in the summer of 2012.
"Cold places, such as Tibet, the Arctic and the Antarctic, are where the most unexpected discoveries will be made in the future — these are the remaining frontiers that are still largely unexplored," said Xiaoming Wang.