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Woolly rhinos, giant lions and super-elephants – Britain’s forgotten ancient animals revealed

By Uncategorized
Sean Keach, The Sun | October 13, 2019

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Ancient Britain was home to a menagerie of long-forgotten creatures – including woolly rhinos and the cave lion.

We reveal some of the most exotic animals to roam the British Isles over the last 2.6million years.

Woolly Rhinoceros

The woolly rhinoceros was an ice age mammal coated in thick fur to protect against cold weather.

Just like modern rhinos, they were large and strong – but maintained a strict plant-only diet.

An adult woolly rhino typically measured up to 12.5 foot in length, and weighed as much as 2,700 kilos.

They could also grow up to 6.6 foot tall, and had horns roughly two-foot long.

These creatures roamed Doggerland, a now-sunken land mass surrounding Britain and France.

And they common in southern England, which was a cold and arid desert at the time.

It’s believed that the woolly rhino first appeared 300,000 years ago, and died out in 8,000BC.

Original illustration as published by The Sun: Woolly rhinos were coated in thick fur and could weigh 2,700 kilos. (Credit: Alamy)

Cave Lion

The Eurasian cave lion, or Panthera spelaea, is an extinct species.

It evolved in Europe less than 600,000 years ago, and is genetically distinct from the modern lion found in Africa and Asia.

The oldest bone fragments of Eurasian cave lions date back around 62,400 years.

The species finally became extinct around 13,000 years ago.

They would have stood roughly 3.9 feet tall with a body length of around 6.9 feet.

Experts say the species may have been around 10% larger than modern lions.

They were probably similar in colour to modern lions, although slightly lighter.

They roamed from Europe to Alaska over the Bering land bridge, and were even found in Spain and the UK.

Cave Bear

The cave bear is a now-extinct species of bear that lived across Europe and Asia.

They were bigger than grizzly bears, reaching 5 feet tall and 10 feet long – and weighing up to 600 kilos (and possibly even 1,000 kilos at the extreme end).

Cave bears would have had broad domed skulls with steep foreheads, and boasted stout long bodies.

Despite their fearsome appearance, they were likely largely vegetarian, although may occasionally have eaten meat.

Members of the species often died during hibernation, or from fighting during breeding seasons.

Estimates suggest that they rarely lived beyond 20 years of age.

It’s believed that the cave bear died out around 24,000 years ago.

Woolly Mammoth

The legendary woolly mammoth first emerged around 400,000 years ago, and is one of the ice age’s most iconic creatures.

They were roughly the size of modern African elephants, growing to around 11.2 feet and 6 tons in weight. Even a newborn calf could weigh as much as 90 kilos.

Woolly mammoths were well-adapted to cold temperatures, thanks to a thick coating of fur, and short ears and tails to minimise frostbite and heat loss.

These mammoths would have co-existed with early humans, and were also hunted for food.

But they disappeared around 10,000 years ago, probably because of a combination of hunting and climate change.

Scimitar-Toothed Cat

The scimitar-toothed cat is an extinct genus of the sabre-toothed cat, and roamed across Britain, North and South America, Europe and Africa.

They existed for around 4million years, but became extinct around 28,000 years ago in Europe.

Scimitar-toothed cats had deadly upper canines with serrated edges for tearing through flesh.

Their body structure gave them a hyena-like appearance, primed for leaping.

But they were large at nearly four foot tall, 5.5 foot long and weighing roughly 100 to 190 kilos.

Scimitar-toothed cats were meat-eaters, and may have declined due to the disappearing of large mammals (like mammoths).

They arrived in Britain around 750,000 years ago, but moved south to warmer parts of Europe over time.

Straight-Tusked Elephant

This extinct species of elephant inhabited Europe and Western Asia between 781,000 and 50,000 years ago. They reached up to 13.8 feet in height – about three feet taller than modern African elephants.

And they could weight up to 15 tonnes, making them significant bigger than the woolly mammoth.

They were named after their long tusks, and likely lived in herds.

It’s believed that straight-tusked elephants may have been hunted by early humans.

They disappeared from Britain around 120,000 years ago, and eventually became extinct on the Iberian peninsula.

Wild yak poop offers clues to the extinction of the woolly mammoth and woolly rhinos

By Science and technology
Sahana Ghosh, Mongabay | August 22, 2019

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From the trekking and tour companies named after it to cheese and tee-shirts, the image of the culturally important shaggy yak is ubiquitous as one trundles through Himalayan villages. The dung of the wild yak (Bos mutus), ancestor of the economically important domestic yak (Bos grunniens), is of scientific value too.

Researchers have dug up clues in wild yak dung that could shed light on how the species outlived woolly mammoth and woolly rhino that went extinct about 9000 years ago.

They hypothesise in a study that dietary diversity in a changing climate may have shaped the yak’s survival in contrast to its colossal contemporaries-the woolly rhino and woolly mammoth.

The study documenting the dietary preferences of the modern wild yak also offers insights for the conservation of the endangered species that is found only in the high Himalayas.

“We carried out the study on the dung of present-day wild yak, a temperate climate-loving megaherbivore, to understand their dietary and habitat preference concerning the current vegetation and climate. We were mindful of the fact that the present is the key to the past,” study author Sadhan K. Basumatary of Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, Lucknow, told Mongabay-India.

It is the first attempt to tease apart pollen and plant remains in modern yak dung, the scientist said, adding the recorded information may deepen our understanding of the extinction of these megaherbivores despite having diets very similar to the surviving yak and bison.

Around 11,700 years ago, a transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene epoch took place and regions around the world suffered unprecedented losses of megafauna species.

Pleistocene and Holocene are two epochs of earth’s most recent geologic era, the Quaternary period. In earth’s geologic history, the quaternary period began 2.6 million years ago, extending into the present.

Original photo as published by India.mongabay.com: A group of wild yak. Photo by Sadhan Basumatary.

A change in vegetation, the spread of modern humans (Homo sapiens), related effects of hunting and habitat change and climate change, have received broad support as the primary drivers of this extinction.

“The Quaternary period is a very critical period where maximum climatic changes have been observed. The pollen and non-pollen microfossils are the only proxies to understand the past vegetation and climate concerning the paleo-herbivory and paleodietary analysis,” said Basumatary.

“The findings reveal that the pollen assemblage recorded in the present yak dung study is very similar to the pollen cluster found in the dungs of the woolly mammoth and rhino that lived until 9000 to 10000 years ago. The last surviving woolly mammoths died out about 4000 years ago,” Basumatary explained.

“But the modern-day data can help reconstruct paleovegetation and climate in the region and can be correlated at a global level,” he said.

Fossil yak has been found from the Pleistocene of eastern Russia, Tibet, and Nepal and so the species was directly connected with woolly mammoths and was most likely also associated with the woolly rhino as shown by the similarity in pollen assemblages in the yak dung analysis and coprolite (fossilised dung) of the woolly mammoths and woolly rhino, said the study.

The study findings feed into generating baseline data on yak dung characteristics from different environments. “The generated data can provide us with the reasons for the megafaunal extinction, whether it is climatic or anthropogenic,” said Basumatary.

Poop Check

To source dung samples for their study, the researchers trekked up the alpine hills north from the Dronagiri village areas in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand in the western Himalayas during summer and winter of 2017.

In unpacking the yak’s diet, the researchers found the yak chows on a combination of both alpine meadow and steppe vegetation as the season changes.

“Grasses are the primary food of yak, but they also consume different kinds of non-grasses and some trees and shrubs depending on the availability and climate of the region,” said Basumatary.

The associated herbs and shrubs belong to families Cyperaceae (sedges), Artemisia, Asteroideae, Chenopodiaceae (goosefoot) and genus Impatiens, Prunus, and Rhododendron.

Laboratory analysis revealed a higher diversity of pollen in summer samples, which means the yak likes a wide range of plants in that season and they migrate up to 50 kilometers in search of food. Pollen grains of plants of the genus Pinus, Cedrus, and Alnus which do not grow in this region, also showed up in the analysis.

Their presence could be due to the pollen grains drifting upwards with the warm wind rising from conifer forest zone in the lower altitudes.

The presence of diatoms (single-celled algae) in the dung is suggestive of the fact that yak has access to a seasonal perennial water source in the region. The dung samples also contained phytoliths (silica particles deposited in cells of plants).

Presence of grass phytoliths and other phytoliths reinforced the idea that plants other than grasses that were also important food plants of the yak.

“By studying pollen assemblages of wild yak, woolly mammoth and woolly rhinos, we can say they have the same food habits. But there are some minor differences in their food habits,” said Basumatary.

“For instance, arboreal (tree) elements are present in the wild yak dung samples which mean the animals migrated towards lower elevation and are acquainted with vegetation and climate in those altitudes,” said Basumatary.

Human Impact and Climate Change

According to paleobiologist Advait Jukar with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, the present study is useful for conservation in that it gives us a better understanding of the diet of the yak, and hence the kinds of habitats we should be conserving to ensure its continued survival.

However, Jukar, who was not associated with the study, said he thinks yaks likely survived in the high Himalayas because of the low densities of people there and/or reduced anthropogenic pressures and an abundance of the steppe-like vegetation they preferred.

“It’s interesting that yaks also occupied the mammoth steppe environment that was home to woolly mammoths, woolly rhino, bison, horses, and musk. I don’t think the yak’s diet per-se had anything to do with its survival. Mammoths and woolly rhino (along with the other inhabitants of the mammoth steppe) likely faced increasing anthropogenic pressures from encroaching human populations on the mammoth steppe environment as the climate warmed during the terminal Pleistocene and Holocene,” explained Jukar.

Jukar said both these species survived the penultimate ice age, which showed similar climatic and environmental fluctuations.

“The only unique factor that we have been able to discern in the last ice age is the presence of humans. Yaks likely survived in the high Himalayas because of the low densities of people there and/or reduced anthropogenic pressures and an abundance of the steppe-like vegetation they preferred,” Jukar told Mongabay-India.