Rhinoceroses

By | September 9, 2016

Today there are only five or six species of rhinoceros, all fairly similar. In prehistoric times the rhino family was much more varied, its members ranging from dog-sized animals to giants as tall as trees and heavier than any other land mammals. Some prehistoric rhinos were long-legged hornless animals built like horses for speed; others were short and fat and wallowed in water like hippos.

FAMILY FACT FILE

Key features
■ Large size
■ Most had horns made from keratin (the same material that nails are made of)
■ Large teeth for chewing leaves or grass
■ Feet with hooves

When
Rhinoceroses first appeared in the Paleogene Period.

Paraceratherium (PARRA-serra-THEER-ee-um)

paraceratherium


When: 33–23 million years ago (Late Paleogene–Early Neogene)

Fossil location: Pakistan, Kazakhstan, India, Mongolia, China

Habitat: Plains

Length: 26 ft (8 m)

Diet: Plants

As big as a killer whale, this early hornless rhinoceros was the largest land mammal of all time. Its immense size and long neck allowed it feed on treetops, as giraffes do today. Its long, flexible lips could wrap around branches and strip the leaves off.

Paraceratherium-1

The largest land mammal of all time, Paraceratherium weighed about 16½ tons (15 metric tons)—twice as much as Tyrannosaurus and four times heavier than an elephant.

Teleoceras (TEE-lee-oh-SEE-rass)

teleoceras


When: 17–4 million years ago

Fossil location: USA

Habitat: Plains

Length: 13 ft (4 m)

Diet: Grass

Hundreds of complete skeletons of Teleoceras were found at Ashfall Fossil Beds in Nebraska (search the article). The animals died after choking on ash from a volcanic eruption 10 million years ago. Teleoceras was a large rhinoceros with a small, conical horn on its nose. But with its long, bulky body and stumpy legs, it looked more like a hippo than a rhino. Fossils have been found in ancient river and pond deposits, suggesting it wallowed in water a bit like a hippo, too.

STUMPY GRAZER

teleoceras-skeleton

Teleoceras’s skeleton

Teleoceras had short stumpy legs and a barrel-shaped body. Its tall teeth were well suited to chewing grass, and fossilized grass seeds found in the throat of several skeletons show that grass was its main source of food.

Coelodonta (SEE-low-DON-tah)

coelodonta


When: 3 million–10,000 years ago (Late Neogene)

Fossil location: Europe, Asia

Habitat: Plains

Length: 12 ft (4 m)

Diet: Grass

Also called the woolly rhino, Coelodonta had a thick coat of long, shaggy hair that protected it from the cold. It lived in Europe and Asia during the last ice age, and we know what it looked like thanks to frozen bodies found buried in icy ground (permafrost) and prehistoric cave paintings left by Stone Age people. About the size of a modern white rhino, its body was massive, with short, stocky limbs. On its snout was a pair of huge horns, each of a different size—the front horn was as long as 3 ft (1 m) in males. Coelodonta was a grazer, probably grinding mouthfuls of grass and other plants after tugging them out of the ground.

Elasmotherium (ell-AZZ-moe-THEER-ee-um)

elasmotherium


When: 2 million–126,000 years ago or later

Fossil location: Asia

Habitat: Plains

Length: 20 ft (6 m)

Diet: Grass

Elasmotherium was a large rhinoceros, weighing about 3 tons, that lived until ice age times and may have been hunted by early people. Its huge, single horn has inspired theories that this animal was the source of the unicorn myth, although it probably vanished too early in history to be remembered even in folk tales. With legs longer than a modern rhino’s, Elasmotherium may have been quicker on its feet. Its teeth were large and flattopped— adapted to a diet of grass and small plants, which it perhaps tore from the ground by swinging its head.

Subhyracodon (sub-high-RACK-oh-don)

subhyracodon-skeleton


When: 33–25 million years ago (Late Paleogene)

Fossil location: USA

Habitat: Plains

Length: 9 ft (3 m)

Diet: Plants

This cow-sized rhinoceros had no horns and was not heavily armored like modern rhinoceroses. Instead, Subhyrocodon relied on its long, slender legs to flee from danger. Its teeth had sharp crests, well-suited to mashing leaves from trees and bushes.

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