Science Interviews


Thu, 11th Apr 2013

Uncovering a British Wooly Rhino

Professor Danielle Schreve, Royal Holloway, University of London

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When a preserved woolly rhino skeleton was found in a Staffordshire quarry 11 years ago it was described as “the most significant fossil find of a large mammal in Britain for over 100 years.”  

Planet Earth podcast presenter Sue Nelson went to meet Professor Danielle Schreve at the Royal Holloway, University of London, who led the team that’s been studying the find

Danielle Shreve:The animal was dated by radio carbon dating and it has produced a nice cluster of dates around 42,000 years ago which puts it pretty much slap bang in the middle of the last Ice Age. It's an interesting period for us because it's a period of relatively elevated warmth with summer temperatures around 12 degrees centigrade and critically the development of a huge, very rich, tundra environment that has no modern analogue today but which would have suited the rhino and other species around at the time extremely well.

Sue Nelson: This skeleton was found in a quarry, we know it was cold, you say it was in the middle of the Ice Age, obviously it's got its woolly coat that adapted for that sort of weather but give me a picture of what it was like then.

Danielle Shreve: The rhino was found in sand and gravel deposits which were laid down by the River Tame which is a tributary of the modern day Trent and we know that at the time of when the rhino died it was a very open rather barren landscape, certainly treeless and lots of grasses and shrubs that the rhino would have been able to graze on and in particular the river would have been running as a braided cold climate river with many channels and very bare and also rather boggy ground adjacent to the main channels. It's probably as part of that story that the rhino in fact met its doom because like a lot of very large mammals it is very easy for these animals to get mired and we know that because of the excellent state of preservation of the rhino it was buried as a virtually complete carcass and buried extremely rapidly by the sediments and then not uncovered for 40-odd thousand years later.

Sue Nelson: And was it on its own? Was it solitary or did you have any other mammals in the same vicinity?

Danielle Shreve: We found remains of a minimum number of another four individuals of rhino at the site. Also remains of woolly mammoth, of bison, of horse and of wolf.

Sue Nelson: That's a treasure trove really isn't.

Danielle Shreve: It is. I mean it was very unusual to find such a complete find.

Sue Nelson: You discovered this quite a while ago. What have you been studying then that's been able to give you this link between the fossil and effectively the climate at that time?

Danielle Shreve: We've been able to look at the sediments themselves to say something about how the river was depositing sands and gravels and we were also able to collect different palaeobiological proxies, in this case, for example, pollen, plant macrofossil, so things like leaves and seeds, bits of stem but also beetles and the remains of chironomids which are non-biting midges and in particular the beetles and chironomids can give us a very clear idea of vegetation but also of the temperature that was experienced at the time.

Sue Nelson: So how did you work out then what the temperatures were?

Danielle Shreve: Using the beetles and the chironomids today these species that we encountered at the site have very, very narrow temperature tolerances. So by examining the range where these insect species occur today we're able to say very clearly to extrapolate back into the past exactly what the temperature regime was like. Now, for the summer we're looking at summer temperatures of around 12 degrees centigrade. That's roughly 3 degrees cooler than at the present day, but the winter temperatures are much colder, so you're looking at temperatures between minus 16 and minus 22 degrees Centigrade, so extremely savage winter conditions.

Sue Nelson: Was this what you were expecting or did it tell us anything new about what was going on in that particular area at that time.

Danielle Shreve: What we're starting to see with the middle part of the last Ice Age between about 60 and 25 thousand years ago, is that it is a time of very rapid climatic oscillation, shockingly rapid climatic change and so what we're trying to do is with the help of high precision radio carbon dating is to put together a picture of how those climatic oscillations impact on the environment of Britain, impact on the mega herbivores and of course impacted on early humans at the same time.  So it's a very interesting time period and the Whitemoor Lake find goes along way to contributing information.

Remains of woolly rhinos themselves are not particularly unusual for the last cold stage but they are often found in caves and they are often heavily gnawed by one of the major predators at the time which was the spotted hyena. In this case we have a superbly preserved, virtually complete, front part of this skeleton that we are able to look at in great detail and also to compare with other woolly rhino material, not only from Britain but also from the adjacent continent.


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