Elasmotherium— This enormous rhinoceros roamed the steppes of Asia. The remnants of its horn have long since disappeared, but in life, this weapon could have been 2 m long. (Renata Cunha)
Scientific name: Elasmotherium sibiricum Scientific classification: Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Perissodactyla Family: Rhinocerotidae
When did it become extinct? The most recent specimens of this prehistoric animal are around 1.6 million years old, but there is circumstantial evidence that this great beast survived into much more recent times. Where did it live? The remains of this animal have been found on the central steppes of Asia and at locations in southern Russia.
Mammoths were not the only giant, shaggy beasts that stalked the cold, windswept lands of central and northern Asia. That other group of massive herbivorous mammals, the rhi-noceri, also spawned species that were adapted to the cold conditions that have prevailed on earth for the last 2 million years. The giant rhino was one of these animals. We only know it only from a few skeletons and isolated bones, but even these dry remains are a real sight. The living animal, walking across the treeless plains of central Asia, must have been a very impressive sight. An adult giant rhino was around 6 m long, 2 m at the shoulder, 5 to 6 tonnes, and probably covered in dense fur. By comparison, the biggest white rhino (Cera-totherium simum) on record was just over 4 m long and 1.8 m tall, and weighed around 3.5 tonnes, which gives you a good idea of how big the giant rhino was.
The skulls of this animal that have been found indicate that this beast was the proud owner of a single, huge horn, estimated to have been around 2 m long. We can never be sure of the appearance of the horn because one has never been found due to the simple fact that unlike deer antlers, rhinoceros horn is actually made out of very dense keratin fibers, the same protein that makes your hair and nails. In life, these horns are a potent weapon, but in death, they rot away, leaving no remains.
The white rhino, even with its stubby legs, is a quick, nimble runner able to reach speeds of 40 to 50 km per hour, and as the giant rhino had relatively long legs, it may have been capable of quite a turn of speed, with a running gate similar to a horse, characteristics that were very useful on the central Asian steppe. We can be fairly certain that an adult giant rhino was invulnerable to all of the predators of the time, even the saber tooth cats with their huge fangs, but it may have been a different story for young giant rhinos, who were probably easily overpowered and killed by a carnivorous cat or a pack of wolves.
We know from the fossils of the giant rhino that its cheek teeth grew continuously throughout its lifetime, and this gives us insight into what it ate. Like other mammals of enormous bulk, the giant rhinoceros was a herbivore, and it would specifically have favored grasses and the short herbs growing on the steppe. The fibrous vegetation that formed its diet must have been very tough on the teeth, and long hours every day spent chewing wore them down; fortunately, the continual growth of the teeth got around this problem, ensuring that a good grinding surface was always in place to pulverize the plants. Apart from being tough and fibrous, grass is also difficult to digest, and all rhinos, even long-dead ones, employ the help of bacteria to break down the cellulose that forms the bulk of plant tissue into sugars that can be digested. In rhinos, the bacteria process the cellulose in the rear of the gut, which gives them the name "hind-gut fermenters." This type of fermentation is quite inefficient, but it can deal with lots of food in a short period of time, enabling the hind-gut fermenters to reach great size, as the giant rhino did.
Compared to remains of prehistoric mammals like the mammoths, fossils of the giant rhino are very rare, and our knowledge of this amazing, long-dead beast is based on only a few bones that have been unearthed over the years. Of these remains, the most recent ones are around 1.6 million years old, but there is anecdotal evidence that this species survived into much more recent times. Some of the native tribes of central Asia and southern Russian as well as medieval chroniclers tell stories of a great black bull with a single horn on its head. There is no doubt that whatever animal prompted these stories is long extinct, but it is possible that the giant rhino survived for long enough to feature in the folk memory of these people. Some people even suggest that the legend of the unicorn stemmed from the folk memory of the giant rhino, but whatever the truth may be, it is intriguing to think that our ancestors on the lonely plains of central Asia once walked among these gigantic, single-horned rhinoceri.
♦ The line of mammals that gave rise to the living rhinoceri we know today—the white rhino, the black rhino (Diceros bicornis), the Indian rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis), the Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) and the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatren-sis)—has, over immense stretches of time, been represented by some bizarre and amazing animals, including the largest land mammal ever to have lived: the truly immense Indricotherium, which was about 5 m at the shoulder, 8 m long, and 20 tonnes in weight.
♦ The horn of the giant rhino reflects the exaggeration in reproductive adornments that can be seen in many types of prehistoric mammal—from the giant tusks of the mammoths to the remarkable antlers of the giant deer. The giant rhino's horn was crucial in winning a mate during the breeding season as males could have sized each other up based on the size of their adornment. When fights between males did erupt, the horn must have been a vicious weapon, and it must also have been used with great effect against any predators stupid enough to attack the giant rhino.
♦ As with the other animals that evolved to survive the cold and warm cycles of the ice ages, the giant rhino was able to cope with the changing conditions that saw global temperatures increase and ice sheets the world over recede, although its populations may have expanded and contracted with the movements of the ice. It is unlikely that human hunting was solely responsible for the extinction of these animals, but it may have been sufficient to knock a species over the edge whose populations were already being squeezed by climate change.
Further Reading: Noskova, N.G. "Elasmotherians—Evolution, Distribution and Ecology." In The World of Elephants—International Congress, Rome, 126-28. Rome: 2001; Markova, A. K. "Pleistocene Mammal Faunas of Eastern Europe." Quaternary International 160 (2007): 100-11.
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