10,000-year-old mystery solved using technique 'not previously considered possible'

Until now, it was wrongly assumed humans played no part in the extinction of the woolly rhinoceros went extinct 10,000 year ago.

A woman in silhouette with a wooly rhinoceros skull.
Wooly rhinoceros horns could measure one metre in length. Source: Getty

A 10,000-year-old mystery about what led to the extinction of one of the world’s last megafauna has been solved.

The woolly rhinoceros stood at nearly two metres and had a metre-long horn. But the creature, which had walked Eurasia for around 3.6 million years, was wiped out by human activity, new research from the University of Adelaide and University of Copenhagen has revealed.

Looking back over 52,000 years of history, investigators used ancient DNA, fossils, and new computer modelling with enhanced resolution researchers had "not previously considered possible" to track the species' demise.

The team discovered that 30,000 years ago, low sustained hunting combined with cooling temperatures forced the species to move south. These fragmented populations became isolated and vulnerable as its last remaining habitat deteriorated as the Last Ice Age ended.

“As Earth thawed and temperatures rose, populations of woolly rhinoceros were unable to colonise important new habitats opening up in the north of Eurasia, causing them to destabilise and crash, bringing about their extinction,” lead author Associate Professor Damien Fordham explained.

The new research upends a previous belief that humans played no role in the species' extinction.

Related: Silent extinctions occurring unreported across Australia

A man looking at a life-sized model at a museum in Germany.
A life-sized model at a museum in Germany shows how woolly rhinoceros once appeared. Source: Getty

There are some species, like the shaggy-haired muskox, which lived at the time of the woolly mammoth and lived on past the Age Ice. It's believed it survived because of its boom and bust reproduction cycles which helped it rebound after population collapses caused by changing weather.

Musk ox on a hillside in Europe
Musk ox lived at the time of the woolly rhinoceros, but have survived despite threats from hunters and habitat loss. Source: Getty

They are native to the Arctic and have continued to live across Northern Canada and Greenland. The Alaskan population was wiped out in the late 19th or early 20th century but were later reintroduced.

Most of the Earth's 61 species of land-based mega-herbivores around in the late Pleistocene period have now been wiped out — and only eight terrestrial animals weighing more than a tonne remain.

Of those, five are rhinoceros, all of which face continued threats from hunters. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it’s estimated there were half a million rhinoceros across Asia and Africa. By 1970 that number had plummeted to just 70,000 and today there are less than 27,000.

And from there it just gets worse. In May it was revealed 13 poachers had boasted of slaughtering 26 critically endangered Javan rhinoceros in Indonesia – roughly one third of the remaining population.

As long as there is interest in the black market trade in illegal horn, which is used as an aphrodisiac in some Asian countries, the future of rhinoceros will not be secure. But researchers hope their investigation into the extinction of the woolly rhinoceros will help prevent modern-day species from being wiped out by climate change and hunting.

Only 76 Javan rhinos remain in the wild. Source: Getty
Only 76 Javan rhinos remain in the wild. Source: Getty

“This understanding is crucial for developing conservation strategies to protect currently threatened species, like vulnerable rhinos in Africa and Asia. By studying past extinctions, we can provide valuable lessons for safeguarding Earth’s remaining large animals,” co-author Professor David Nogues-Bravo said.

The study has been published in the journal PNAS.

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