Photo: Science: Extinct Woolly Rhino Reconstructed From Mummified Remains

Named "Sasha," the remains were first found in 2015, but only recently brought back to life.

IT’S NAMED SASHA after the hunter who found it.

Russian scientists aren’t quite sure if their 10,000-year-old Sasha was male or female, but the name, they say, universally applies.

That any of Sasha, the Ice Age woolly rhino, is intact at all has been a surprising find for the researchers who study this bygone period.

Unlike woolly mammoths, which also lived during the Ice Age, woolly rhino remains are rare to find. Their place on the evolutionary timeline is less clear. And their lifestyles—what they ate and how long they lived—is hazy.

Rebuilding Sasha

Last December, after months of work, a taxidermist from the Yakutian Academy of Sciences took the small, slumped remains of Sasha and brought them back to life. A team of scientists from the Paleontological Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Sakha Academy of Sciences in northeastern Russia has also been studying Sasha for years.

The remains, gray when they were first found, were cleaned. Scientists were surprised to see the young rhino was originally a light strawberry blond color. An analysis of Sasha’s teeth revealed the animal was about seven months old when it died.

That it was so young was a surprise to scientists, reports the Siberian Times. Sasha is big for seven months old. It measures almost five feet long and stands about two and a half feet tall. Modern rhinos in Africa typically don’t reach that size until 18 months of age.


The remains were first found in 2015 by a hunter in Siberia.


Sasha is almost five feet long, much larger than modern rhinos at seven months old.


Olga Potapova is a scientist at The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs South Dakota, a preservation and research organization. Her work has focused on large extinct mammals of the Ice Age, and she’s currently conducting research on Sasha, though she says she can’t yet reveal too much.

Sasha is currently being studied by a team of international scientists led by the Russian Academy of Sciences.

What she can discuss is how important the find is for scientists’ understanding of this time period. Other bits and pieces of woolly rhinos like teeth bones have been found, but Sasha is the only intact baby rhino mummy of this species, Coelodonta antiquitatis.

"This find will allow scientists to shed light on different sides of the woolly rhino biology and morphology," she says. Meaning they’ll be able to learn how it developed, what it ate, and how it differed from modern rhinos.

How Sasha died, and was so well preserved, is also still a mystery.

"We [paleontology and geology scientists] think we know a lot about the last Ice Age in general and about animals inhabiting it, but in reality, we just scratched the surface of this past world," Potapova says.

Clues About the Last Ice Age

The remains were first found in 2015 in the permafrost lining a Siberian riverbank. Permafrost, as the name might indicate, refers to ground that’s permanently frozen for more than two consecutive years, but in Siberia, it often refers to ground that has been frozen for thousands.

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The region is the only known habitat of the woolly rhino. One of the greatest mysteries surrounding the species is why it didn’t cross the Bering Bridge, says Potapova. She’s referring to a land bridge that may have once connected northeastern Russia and Alaska.

Woolly mammoths, steppe bison, reindeer, and other species are thought to have crossed it during the Pleistocene. But what particular adaptations woolly rhinos had to survive in this climate are also unclear.

A Mysterious End

Scientist have a few theories as to why the woolly rhino went extinct but no solid explanation.

One study published in August of last year suggested they may have gone extinct from a genetic abnormality. A look at their fossilized remains found many contain a cervical neck rib, a condition associated with birth defects. The study suggested that inbreeding could have therefore factored into their decline.

For her part, Potapova referred to two theories as to why the species went extinct.


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The first is that climactic changes impacted the feeding habitats of herbivores, which in turn led to the extinction of larger carnivores like cave lions and saber-tooth cats.

The second theory is that they were killed off by people.

"Recent research of the ancient DNA of many extinct herbivores showed that populations declined and their genetic pool degenerated well before human appearances on these two continents," she says, suggesting the former theory is more likely.

Sasha’s remains alone can’t tell scientists why the species went extinct, but Potapova says it’s an important piece to the larger puzzle of this species.


Photos: Melting Russian Permafrost Yields New Woolly Rhino Specimen

Russian researchers say this may be the best-preserved woolly rhino ever found

Horizontal image of the woolly rhino's full bodyResearchers say some of this woolly rhino’s internal organs may still be preserved. (Valery Plotnikov / Courtesy of the Siberian Times)

A shockingly well-preserved woolly rhinoceros has emerged from the thawing muck of the Russian permafrost, reports Valeria Sukhova for the Siberian Times.

Valerii Plotnikov, a mammoth researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences, tells RT’s Jonny Tickle that this may be the best-preserved example of the extinct Ice Age mammal ever found.

There are soft tissues in the back of the carcass, possibly genitals and part of the intestine,” he tells RT. “This makes it possible to study the excreta, which will allow us to reconstruct the paleoenvironment of that period.

Plotnikov tells local Russian outlet Yakutia 24 that the woolly rhino specimen includes all four limbs, its horn and even some of its woolly coat, according to report from Reuters. The scientist also says wear marks on the horn suggest the creature may have used its bony protrusion to gather food, perhaps scraping away snow to reach tender greenery underneath.

Wear marks on the horn suggest the creature may have used its bony protrusion to gather food, perhaps scraping away snow to reach tender greenery underneath. (Valery Plotnikov / Courtesy of the Siberian Times)

Plotnikov tells the Siberian Times that the animal looks to have died young at three or four years of age and likely drowned. “The gender of the animal is still unknown,” he adds.

The prehistoric beast was found in the Yakutia region in August and is thought to have roamed the Arctic plains between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago, Plotnikov tells the Siberian Times. The Associated Press reports that radiocarbon dating tests should deliver a more precise estimate of its age once the ancient carcass reaches a lab.

According to the Siberian Times, the ancient remains are stuck in a remote location near the Tirekhtyakh River until ice roads form and they can be transported to a research facility in Yakutia’s capital city of Yakutsk.

After initial study in Yakutsk, the remains will be sent to Sweden for further analysis, per RT. Plotnikov mentions Swedish researcher Love Dalen, a paleogeneticist at Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History, as a potential collaborator for unspooling the specimen’s biological secrets. "It’s a fantastic find, clearly one of the best preserved woolly rhinos ever discovered," he says.

Dalen has previously extracted DNA from other well-preserved woolly rhino tissues to help answer questions about their mysterious extinction. "This specimen will be very important for our ongoing project to sequence the genomes from multiple rhinos in order to examine the species’ evolutionary history," he says.

According to the Siberian Times, the new woolly rhino specimen was discovered by local resident Alexei Savvin just a short distance away from the site that produced the world’s only example of a baby woolly rhino. That specimen, first unearthed in 2014, was subsequently spruced up and named Sasha.


How Dinosaurs Thrived in the Snow

Discoveries made in the past decades help show how many species coped with cold temperatures near both poles

Imagine a tyrannosaur striding through the snow, leaving three-toed footprints in the powder as flurries fall on the fuzz along the dinosaur’s back. The vision might seem fit for fantasy, vastly different than the steamy and plant-choked settings we typically think of dinosaurs inhabiting. Yet such scenes truly transpired millions of years ago, with an entire spiky, feathery and beaked menagerie of dinosaurs thriving in polar habitats marked by greater swings between the seasons and prolonged winter darkness.

The finds are coming fast and furious. A tiny jaw found in Alaska’s ancient rock record, and written about in July, indicates that dinosaurs nested in these places and stayed year-round. In 2018, paleontologists published a study describing how microscopic details of polar dinosaur bones show that some dinosaurs slowed their growth during harsh seasons to get by with less. The ongoing identification of new species, not found anywhere else, highlighted how some dinosaurs adapted to the cold. Each thread comes together to underscore how wonderfully flexible dinosaur species were, adapting to some of the harshest habitats of their time.

Understanding when and where polar dinosaurs roamed takes a little geological imagination. Earth’s continents are always shifting, so the climates where fossils are found were once different. The environments recorded in the strata of southern Australia, for example, were further south and within the Antarctic Circle when dinosaurs thrived there in the Cretaceous. But in reconstructing the tectonic jigsaw and tracking where fossils have been uncovered, paleontologists have found dinosaurs that lived near both the northern and southern poles at different times.

Some of the oldest polar dinosaurs are found among the rocks of southern Australia’s aptly-named Dinosaur Cove. Over 110 million years ago, says Monash University paleontologist Patricia Rich, this area was a temperate rainforest carpeted with ferns and bushy-looking conifers called podocarps. And while the Cretaceous world was a bit warmer, with no polar icecaps, winter could still be harsh. “There would have been ice and snow in the three-month-long, dark winters,” Rich says. Still, a variety of dinosaurs thrived here, including small, feathery predators, parrot-like oviraptors and Leaellynasaura, a small herbivore that walked on two legs and had one of the longest tails for its body size of any dinosaur.

Some dinosaurs might have dug in to survive the harshest months. Paleontologists working in southern Australia’s strata have found burrow-like structures from the age of Leaellynasaura, and elsewhere these structures actually contain small, herbivorous dinosaurs. “It’s possible that dinosaurs might have burrowed as a way to escape the cold,” says paleontologist Adele Pentland of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History.

“The clearest evidence we have of polar adaptations, or not, is the composition of the fauna,” adds Monash University paleontologist Steve Poropat. Which types of dinosaurs are found in cooler places, as opposed to those that are missing, offers some insights into which dinosaurs were better able to cope with or adapt to the long polar nights. “Theropods, ornithopods, ankylosaurs? No problem. You find them at heaps of sites throughout Victoria,” Poropat notes, referencing the state in southeastern Australia. These types of dinosaurs could withstand the cold and dark months. But long-necked, plant-eating dinosaurs called sauropods that lived at the same time are missing from the same sites, which suggests that they were not able to survive or adapt to the colder environments.

The Antarctic Circle wasn’t the only place to host chill-adapted dinosaurs. The 70 million-year-old rock of Alaska’s Prince Creek Formation contains the fossils of horned dinosaurs, tyrannosaurs, duckbilled dinosaurs, raptors and more that lived within the Arctic Circle. And when these dinosaurs began to catch researcher’s attention during the 1980s, they presented some challenges to what paleontologists thought about dinosaur lives.

“When dinosaurs were first found in the Arctic, they presented some serious problems to our understanding of dinosaurian physiology,” Perot Museum of Nature and Science paleontologist Tony Fiorillo says. Even as paleontologists considered that dinosaurs might keep warmer body temperatures, the harshness of the Arctic cold was thought to be too much. Some experts proposed that dinosaurs might migrate, drawing an analogy to modern-day caribou, which don’t migrate long distances north and south, Fiorillo says. Various lines of evidence indicate that the dinosaurs remained in their home habitat through the winter. Just this past year, Fiorillo and colleagues were the ones who published on a jaw from a very young raptor—evidence that dinosaurs were nesting in the region and not just passing through.

The landscape would have looked a little familiar. At the time the Prince Creek Formation was being laid down, Fiorillo says, the area was similar to what it’s like today—a coastal plain dominated by stands of conifers and flowering plants low to the ground. And while overall warmer than the same spot today, it still got cold enough to snow during the winters.

Alaska’s dinosaurs had to contend with some of the same stresses as their southern counterparts—such as harsher changes in seasons and months of darkness—but evidence from their bones indicate that these dinosaurs stayed year-round. Much like their relatives elsewhere, polar dinosaurs grew fast when they were young but switched to more of a stop-and-start growth pattern as they got older. This means that polar dinosaurs were already biologically predisposed to surviving on less during the cold months, with the dinosaurs growing faster again during the lush summers. While certainly chilly during the winter, the ground did not freeze in these places, providing enough vegetation to support an ecosystem of resident dinosaurs.

There may have been no one way that dinosaurs adjusted to the comparative harshness of life near the pole. The local tyrannosaur in the Prince Creek Formation was not a familiar species seen elsewhere, but a unique and smaller predator—roughly the size of a polar bear— that Fiorillo and colleagues dubbed Nanuqsaurus. The comparatively small stature of this dinosaur, as well as the downsized species of horned dinosaur called Pachyrhinosaurus in the area, hints that types of dinosaurs that grew big elsewhere adapted to become smaller and thereby get by on less food in the cool of ancient Alaska.

But some polar dinosaurs truly thrived. The raptor-relative Troodon was a feathery, eight-foot-long dinosaur with large eyes. While rare elsewhere, Fiorillo says, “it is the overwhelmingly abundant theropod dinosaur.” The small-carnivore’s large eyes may have given it an advantage, especially during the dark months.

Our visions of polar dinosaurs are still relatively new. Determining which species lived in cooler areas is part of that task. Some, like Nanuqsaurus which was named in 2014, are new. Others turn out to be familiar—a duckbill dinosaur previously thought to be a new species has turned out to be Edmontosaurus, a wide-ranging hadrosaur found elsewhere. “For me,” Fiorillo says, “the story is even more fascinating knowing that some Arctic dinosaurs became specialists within the ancient north while others were generalists capable of surviving a wide array of environmental conditions.”

Many finds are left to be made, not just among the dinosaurs but about the big picture of the habitats where they lived. “Discoveries are being made every day,” Rich says, noting that fieldwork just this year in the time of Leaellynasaura has uncovered dinosaur tracks, turtle shells, tree trunks with termite damage and more, all parts of a lost polar world. Finds like these will continue to highlight just how successful dinosaurs were, a testament to their prehistoric versatility. In virtually any ancient landscape, dinosaurs found a way.


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