A 10,000-year-old mystery solved with a technique that was not considered possible until now

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 was almost two meters tall and had a meter long horn. But the creature, which roamed Eurasia for about 3.6 million years, was wiped out by human activity, new research from the University of Adelaide and the University of Copenhagen has revealed.

Looking back over 52,000 years of history, researchers used ancient DNA, fossils and new computer modeling with improved resolution that researchers «had not previously considered possible» to track species extinctions.

The team found that 30,000 years ago, low hunting combined with cold temperatures forced the species to move south. These fragmented populations became isolated and vulnerable as the last remaining habitat collapsed after the end of the last ice age.

«As the Earth melted and temperatures rose, woolly rhino populations were unable to colonize important new habitats opening up in northern Eurasia, causing them to destabilize and decline, leading to their extinction,» explained lead author Associate Professor Damien Fordham.

New research refutes the previous belief that humans played no role in the extinction of the species.

Related: A silent extinction occurring unreported across Australia

A man looks at a life-size model in a museum in Germany.

A life-size model in a museum in Germany shows how a woolly rhinoceros once appeared. Source: Getty

There are some species, like the tufted muskrat, that lived in the time of the woolly mammoth and lived in the last ice age. It is believed to have survived thanks to its reproductive growth and failure cycles that helped it recover from population declines caused by changing weather.

Musk cattle on a hill in EuropeMusk cattle on a hill in Europe

Musk cattle lived in the time of the woolly rhinoceros, but survived despite threats from poachers and loss of habitat. Source: Getty

They originated in the Arctic and continued to live throughout northern Canada and Greenland. The Alaskan population was exterminated in the late 19th or early 20th century, but was later reintroduced.

Most of Earth’s 61 species of land megaherbivores in the Late Pleistocene have now been wiped out—and only eight land animals weighing more than a ton remain.

Five of them are rhinoceroses, and all of them face the constant threat of poachers. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it is estimated that there were half a million rhinos across Asia and Africa. By 1970, that number had dropped to only 70,000, and today there are less than 27,000.

And it only gets worse from there. In May, it was revealed that 13 poachers had boasted of killing 26 critically endangered Javan rhinos 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 the rhinoceros will not be secure. But researchers hope their investigation into the extinction of the woolly rhino will help prevent the modern species from being wiped out by climate change and hunting.

There are only 76 Javan rhinos left in the wild.  Source: GettyThere are only 76 Javan rhinos left in the wild.  Source: Getty

There are only 76 Javan rhinos left in the wild. Source: Getty

«This understanding is key to developing conservation strategies to protect currently endangered species, such as the vulnerable rhinoceros in Africa and Asia. By studying past extinctions, we can provide valuable lessons for the conservation of Earth’s remaining large animals,» said co-author Professor David Nogues-Bravo.

The study was published in the journal PNAS.

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