Woolly rhino defrosted after more than 25,000 years

A young, woolly rhino has been thawed whole after as much as 40,000 years frozen in Siberian permafrost.

During an unveiling for Russian press on Tuesday, scientists in Yakutsk officially cataloged the 8-foot-long beast, believed to have perished between 25,000 and 40,000 years ago, as a healthy adolescent of 3 or 4 years old.

“The level of preservation is unique,” said Dr. Valery Plotnikov, chief researcher of the Mammoth Fauna Study Department at the Academy of Science of the Republic of Sakha, in a statement to East 2 West News agency. Its thick hazel-colored hair was once only assumed based on ancient cave paintings in France, he said of the rare discovery.

Plotnikov, whose excavations throughout Yakutia — one of the coldest regions on Earth — has revealed remarkably well-preserved specimens such as a giant wolf head, noted that the teenage rhino had been “very well-fed at the moment it died.”

“Even its under-skin fat was preserved as a powder,” he added. The team also found a rhinoceros horn, which is now believed to have belonged to the recently thawed fossil, at the site. The horn was first discovered in August 2020 — stumbled upon by a local resident — and revealed to the public last month.

It is not yet known whether the rhino, nicknamed Abyisky after the region it was found, was male or female.

The Ice Age animal had apparently died by drowning, perhaps after being chased or attacked by prehistoric predators, researchers believe. Despite its icy habitat, the drowning death was typical of that era, Dr. Gennady Boeskorov told the Siberian Times.

Illustration of a woolly rhinoceros in snow.
Alamy Stock Photo

“It was the Karginsky Interglacial Period, when the temperatures were warmer, the soil defrosted and the animals more often drowned in swamps of got into the ice cracks and thus preserved this way,” said Boeskorov, a researcher at Yakutia Academy of Sciences, and added that official radiocarbon dating has not yet taken place.

This species of cold-weather rhinos once roamed today’s Russia and Europe, as far as the south of England. A baby woolly rhino, dug up in 2014 at the same site as the latest finding, was previously carbon-dated to be 34,000 years.

Paleontologists and geneticists have recently toyed with the idea of reviving another woolly Ice Age creature, the mammoth, thanks to an abundance of viable DNA, although the concept is heavily disputed. The debate over the movement to clone the long extinct species was recently made into a documentary feature, “Genesis 2.0.” The 2019 film also explored the booming “ethical ivory” trade, which sees fearless hunters mining through permafrost to acquire valuable, in-tact tusks from frozen mammoths.

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