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Coelodonta antiquitatis, the scientific name of the woolly rhino, emerged in Europe and Asia during the Pleistocene, where their long hair and heavy fat made them capable of surviving the permafrost climate. These animals were huge, comparable in size to the modern white rhino. They could reach up to 12 feet in length and six thousand pounds, making them a tank of a creature. Most impressive was their front horn, a massive keratin formation over 4 feet long.

Before the species was officially identified in the 1700s, people had found the horns and skulls of the woolly rhino for years. Without the context of the ice age and change in climate, they were thought to be the remains of long-forgotten mythical creatures. Some native groups in Siberia believed the horns to be claws of massive birds, while skulls found in Europe were thought to be the remains of dragons.

The first scientific analysis of the woolly rhino classified it as a close relative of modern rhinoceroses. While they are related, analysis of the woolly rhino’s tooth would reveal a distinction. The ancient species had natural internal cavities, unlike the modern rhinos. These distinctive cavities are still visible today in the specimen.

These teeth allowed the rhino to grind up plant matter. Although the horn may have been used for defensive or mating purposes, it’s also thought to have been used to push aside snow and dirt in search of roots and frozen grasses.

Direct evidence of human contact with the woolly rhino is rare to come by. There are, however, some examples of bone weapons and scavenging events. The rhinos also appear in many pieces of early cave art, particularly in the 30,000-year-old Chauvet cave paintings of France.

The woolly rhino’s extinction came at the end of the last ice age, 11,700 years ago. A number of theories have been put forward as to the exact cause of extinction, with the change in climate and human overhunting both as prominent sources of population loss. Whatever the case, mummified remains of the species can still be found today in permafrost, opening an amazing window into our distant past.

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