Researchers say ancient woolly rhino extinction was due to climate change

Research has been published looking at the extinction of prehistoric megafauna like the woolly mammoth, cave lion, and wooly rhinoceros at the end of the last ice age. This extinction event was previously linked to the spread of early humans around the globe over hunting animals. However, new research has found the wooly rhinoceros may have gone extinct from a different cause than over-hunting.

Scientists say that climate change could have led to the extinction of the creature. Scientists sequenced ancient DNA from 14 megaherbivores finding that the woolly rhinoceros population was stable and diverse until a few thousand years before it went extinct in Siberia. The team believes the temperatures in the region rose too high for the species, which was adapted to the cold.

The team says that it was initially believed humans appeared in northeastern Siberia 14 or 15,000 years ago, right around when the rhino went extinct. However, there have been discoveries of much older human-occupied sites, including one that is around 30,000 years old. That means the demise of the woolly rhinoceros doesn't coincide with humans' first appearance in the region.

Rather than a demise, something like an increase in population was noted during the era. To learn about size and stability of the woolly rhinoceros population in Serbia, researchers studied DNA from tissue, bone, and hair samples of 14 of the creatures. They sequenced the complete nuclear genome to look back in time and estimate population sizes. They also sequenced 14 mitochondrial genomes to estimate the female effective population size.

Using these techniques, the researchers were able to estimate woolly rhino populations for tens of thousands of years before their extinction. They found that after an increase in population size at the start of a cold period 29,000 years ago, the woolly rhino population size remains consistent, and inbreeding was low. Stability lasted until well after humans began living in Siberia. The team believes that the decline coincides with a brief warming. Known as the Bølling-Allerød interstadial towards the end of the last Ice Age.