Over the last 50 million years, rhinos have braved ice ages, prehistoric hyenas and giant crocodiles — and they were once the largest animals on land. Let's go back in time 30 million years, long before modern humans appeared. Tropical forests were shrinking and grassy savannahs were spreading. These lush grasslands were home to creatures long since lost: giant rhinoceroses. Standing 5m tall at the shoulder and weighing up to 20 tonnes, the colossal Paraceratherium was the largest land mammal to ever live.
Its skull alone was over 1m long and it had a much longer neck than today's rhinos, which helped the animal browse for leaves on tall trees. This monstrous creature roamed the open plains stretching from eastern Europe to what is now China. Paraceratherium , with its enormous body and vast range, illustrates how rhinos lived when they were at their peak.
It is the high point of a rarely-told story that spans 50 million years. During that time rhinos have migrated across continents, faced prehistoric hyenas and giant crocodiles, and endured the frigid wilderness of the ice age. But their story begins soon after the extinction of the dinosaurs, in roasting tropical heat. Imagine a time when most of what is now Asia, Europe and North America was covered in dense forest. It was a very warm period in Earth's history, known as the Eocene. This biological epoch began 55 million years ago and ended 34 million years ago.
It was then that rhinos first emerged. Rhinos belong to a group of animals called perissodactyls. These animals all have hooves, and crucially, they have an odd number of toes on their rear feet. Nobody is quite sure how perissodactyls evolved. A study published in suggested that they first appeared 55 million years ago in India , which at the time was not attached to Asia.
What is clear is that the early perissodactyls were the ancestors of rhinos, as well as all modern horses, zebras and tapirs. For example, amynodonts did not have horns and looked rather like modern tapirs — which look like pigs with unusually long limbs. One group of these, the metamynodons, were rather like modern hippos and spent a lot of time in water. Then there were the hyracodonts of North America, Europe and Asia.
To our eyes they would barely look like rhinos at all, and instead seem to be bulky little horses. The Asian hyracodonts would eventually evolve into giants such as Paraceratherium. That evolutionary growth spurt took place in the next period of Earth's history, the Oligocene. It's not clear why Oligocene rhinos got so big. As grasslands replaced forests, the rhinos had to travel further to find trees to feed on. They also had to make the most of food at the tops of trees, as there wasn't always much vegetation lower down. For all its size, Paraceratherium had relatively slender legs and wasn't as bulky as a modern rhino.
It also didn't have a horn, along with many Oligocene rhinos. What's more, despite being so large, Paraceratherium wasn't safe from predators. It and other huge prehistoric rhinos were hunted by gigantic crocodiles. Palaeontologist Pierre-Olivier Antoine of the University of Montpellier in France has found evidence of 10m-long crocodiles eating large rhinos.
One such species, Crocodylus bugtiensis , is known from fossils found in Pakistan, where Paraceratherium once lived.
It's not clear that the crocodiles would have been able to regularly prey on healthy adult rhinos. But they might have snatched young or ill prey when they ventured into water. Antoine has also found tooth prints, which he thinks were made by a Hemicyon : an extinct predator that looked like a cross between a dog and a bear.
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Clearly, even giant rhinos had plenty of predators to be wary of. There are no giant rhinos today. It's not clear why they disappeared, but they may have been out-competed by a newly-evolved rival: elephants. They were more versatile and adaptable. The trunk is just such a marvel. If elephants thrived and hampered rhinos' access to key food sources, that may well have spelled trouble for the giants, which needed to eat hundreds of kilos of vegetation every day.
Hooker points out that the giants also never made it to Europe, which was more densely forested than the other continents. This enclosed habitat might not have suited the large rhinos, which were used to more open spaces, preventing them from expanding westwards.
From 23 million years ago, Earth entered a new period called the Miocene. In total, the remains of over individuals were recovered. Similarly, in the Bugti Hills of Pakistan he once found up to 9 species. For example, Chilotherium was a truly hippo-like rhino. It had little tusks sticking out from its lower jaw and an outsized head. With a small skeleton to support this heavy head, it seems likely that Chilotherium buoyed itself in water. There were also rhinos called Diceratherium that had two horns, but not one in front of the other. Instead, they were beside each other on the rhino's nose.
Furthermore, one of the most iconic of all rhinos has its roots in the Miocene. A group called Elasmotheriines evolved single horns on their heads, and as global temperatures continued to cool over the next few million years, they evolved into Elasmotherium. It was 3m tall, which is impressive but much smaller than Paraceratherium. However, its most striking feature was its huge horn.
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Rhino horns don't fossilise, though they are sometimes preserved in ice. No Elasmotherium horns have ever been discovered, but it is apparent from a base-like recess on the skull that a horn was once attached to it. It's not clear exactly how large the horn was, and palaeontologists generally detest speculating about its exact length.
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Most, though, think it was enormous. It may have been more than 1m long. Elasmotherium appeared on the scene around 2. After millions of years of cooling, Earth finally plunged into a full-scale ice age, and sheets of ice spread from the Arctic to cover much of Europe and North America.
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Faced with a frigid climate, rhinos evolved thick woolly coats. It's not clear if Elasmotherium was woolly, but plenty of other species were. The woolly rhinos may have had their origin in Tibet, before the ice age began. Though this is the third year in a row the number of rhinos poached in South Africa has dropped—from a high of 1, in —conservationists say these losses are still unsustainable.
The decline last year was small enough that it could be accounted for by undetected carcasses in large national parks, according to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring organization. Rhino horn is in demand in Asia, especially in Vietnam. Some erroneously believe it has medicinal value, capable of anything from curing cancer to working as an aphrodisiac. Others use it as a kind of club drug, to be mixed with water or alcohol. Rhino horn is also increasingly being carved into works of art. In a press release, South African environment minister Edna Molewa said 21 government officials had been arrested for poaching-related crimes in Cross-border trade in rhino horns has long been banned, and from to the middle of , buying and selling it within South Africa was also prohibited.
But following a court ruling in Apri l on a lawsuit brought by rhino farmer John Hume, who owns about 1, rhinos, the domestic moratorium was lifted. In August Hume held an auction for some of his stockpiled rhino horn, obtained by cutting off horn with a chainsaw, which is painless if done right.
He and other proponents of legalizing the domestic trade argued it would combat poaching by incentivizing the protection and breeding of more rhinos. But because the international trade is prohibited, and the biggest demand for rhino horn is overseas, critics say that a legal trade in South Africa inevitably would result in those horns leaking onto the international black market and further stimulating demand. After its mother was shot and killed by poachers, this baby rhino survived a serious wound and lack of milk for a week before being caught by rescuers.
Official numbers for how much horn Hume actually sold have not been released. One notable change is that the number of rhinos poached in Kruger National Park, previously a poaching hot spot, has decreased by 24 percent.
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