Short Accounts Of Prof Onslow's Travels


The Woolly Rhinoceros
Coelodonta antiquitatis

Prepared by Dr Robert Sprackland
At the request of Professor Onslow


A long, long time ago, before people lived in villages or had farms, the Earth was very different than it is now. This is a time we call prehistoric. Prehistoric means times before people had languages or books, or any way to write down what they thought about and saw. There were very few places that were green with cool leaves and trees. Instead, it was hot in most places for most of the year. The land was made of flat grassy savannas, places where trees only grow in clumps here and there, and where animals have very few places to find shade, or hide from hunters.

The biggest and most dangerous hunters were the saber-toothed cats. They looked like big lions, were bigger than tigers, and had two huge teeth that looked like big knives. Giant bears were also good hunters that could kill and eat almost any other animal. If you weren’t a hunter, there were three things you might be able to do to protect yourself. You might be able to run faster than the hunter, or you might be small enough to hide somewhere. The third thing you might do is grow to be very, very big.

The very first rhinoceroses on Earth lived in that prehistoric world. They lived long after the dinosaurs died, so they were the biggest animals alive at the time. In fact, the first rhino, called Paracertherium by scientists (though, in truth, I am confident that it was never known by that name in it's own time; the Greek language was still a good 20 million years in the future, but, oh well) was the biggest animal to ever live on land after the dinosaurs died off. Paracertherium wasn’t just big, it was huge. Really, really huge!  A big adult Paracertherium would be about 18 feet tall at the shoulder. That means that it could rest its chin on the roof of a school bus while it was standing. It could also be 30 feet in length, which is almost as long as a school bus. And it could weigh 20 tons, which is a lot heavier than a school bus! It was bigger than five grown elephants. THAT is a really BIG animal! With its long neck it could get the best leaves and fruits from trees, but it could also bend down and browse on the dry grasses. Look at the picture of Paracertherium and see how its snout does not have any horns! Of course, they were so big that they did not need horns to protect themselves. They could just step on a hunter instead! They lived in parts of Asia that make up the modern nations of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and southern China.

But just as our world today is so much different from the world of Paracertherium, there was a time between then and now when it changed again, and it was very different from either then or now. Instead of being hot and dry with a short rainy season, the world got colder and colder. Lakes froze, rain turned into snow, and the ground became very hard. That was a time that scientists call the Pleistocene Era (350,000 to 20,000 years ago), a time of a great worldwide ice age. Small animals escaped from freezing by sleeping through the winter; we call that kind of sleep hibernation. Big animals that had little or no hair could not survive. Many animals that already had hair grew longer hair, and that helped keep them warm even in very cold winters. The most famous of these giant mammals is the woolly mammoth, a type of elephant. But there was also a smaller relative of Paracertherium, a woolly rhinoceros. They lived as long ago as two and a half million years ago, and got smaller over time. They were much smaller than Paracertherium, only about 11 feet long, which helped it keep its head near the ground. That was important for a plant eater that ate mostly grasses. It was also different from its giant relative in having two very long sharp horns on its snout. In fact, the word “rhinoceros” comes from Greek words (again!) meaning “snout horns”.

 Oh, and one more thing about the woolly rhinoceros: it was alive at the time of the earliest people. Cavemen got together in groups to hunt the woolly rhinos, and even painted pictures of the animals on cave walls. No human ever saw a live dinosaur, but they sure did see a lot of woolly rhinos and mammoths. One picture of a rhino, on a cave wall in France, is about 40,000 years old – probably the oldest painting on Earth. The rhinos were big and dangerous, but they could not protect themselves well against human hunters, nor against the rapidly warming Earth.

 The last woolly rhinoceros died about 20,000 years ago. Some animals that lived in the far north became frozen solid, and have been found by scientists of our time. Some of these rhinos are actually on display in museums! The photo below shows one of the frozen rhinos on display at London's magnificent Natural History Museum.

 Of the five types of rhinoceros alive today, only the very rare Sumatran rhino has a coat of thick hair. Scientists think that a population of small woolly rhinos got stranded on the Indonesian island called Sumatra at the end of the last ice age. As the ice melted, ocean levels rose and made islands out of many places that had been part of much bigger bits of land. Perhaps – just perhaps – the Sumatran rhinos are really the very last of the woolly rhinos!