Many magnificent mammals roamed the Americas during the Pleistocene but one of the most spectacular was conspicuously absent. The abscence of rhinos from Pleistocene America was for a long time an ecological mystery. The Bering Landbridge has intermittently served as a gateway between Eurasian and American fauna. Bison, mammoths, elk, saiga antelope, brown bears, and lions crossed from Siberia to Alaska while horses and camels crossed from Alaska to Siberia. The Bering Landbridge emerges above sea level during Ice Ages transforming the Bering Straight from ocean to habitable land where this faunal interchange can take place.
Map of the Bering Landbridge. Note how vast it was. It comprised tens of thousands of square miles. The southern half was good quality wildlife habitat but some species of animals, such as rhinos, could not survive on it, explaining why a certain proportion of animal species were filtered out of the transcontinental faunal exchange.
Recently, some paleoecological studies of areas in Alaska and Siberia that are immediately adjacent to the Bering Straight yielded evidence explaining why some animals, such as the woolly rhino (Coleodonta antiquatatas), never crossed the Bering Landbridge. The northern half of the landbridge was likely blocked by glaciers. The southern half consisted of moist shrubby maritime habitat drastically differing from the vast grassy steppes that existed on both sides of the Landbridge. R. Dale Guthrie calls this habitat a “buckle in the belt of mammoth steppe,” a biome that existed from Europe across Asia and continued again in most of Alaska with the exception of the coastal regions. The Beringian Buckle provided a barrier for some mammals, stopping woolly rhinos from colonizing America but also preventing such American species as ground sloths, short-faced bears, American donkeys, late Pleistocene camels, bonnet-horned musk-oxen, and badgers from colonizing Eurasia. The studies also found different species of steppe-grass adapted beetles on each side of the buckle.
A riparian willow habitat in the Rocky Mountains. This might have been similar to the kind of habitat in Beringia that woolly rhinos and certain kinds of grass-dependent beetles couldn’t survive in long enough to traverse, but woolly mammoth, bison, horses, and elk could. On the east and west sides of the Beringian Buckle were vast steppe grasslands suitable for woolly rhinos. However, they never could get to the east side.
Artist’s rendition of the Woolly rhino. Note the size of its horn.
Climatic conditions over the interior regions of the continents during the Ice Ages created clearer skies and drier conditions than occur presently in Siberia and Alaska. Temperatures were even colder than they are today, but there was less precipitation and cloud cover, creating an environment of grass interspersed with sand dunes. The greater amount of sunlight thawed the permafrost. Unlike today’s Alaska and Siberia, there were no spruce forests or any trees at all. But the Beringian Buckle experienced more cloud cover and precipitation due to the region’s vicinity to the ocean. The greater amount of precipitation and cloud cover allowed a shrubby maritime habitat to flourish, and it was quite different from the grassy steppe that covered so much of the northern hemisphere. The Beringian Buckle served as a refuge for wet tundra plants that later recolonized Alaska and Siberia and unlike the interior of the continents then, it was studded with lakes.
Woolly rhinos weighed on average 7000 pounds, making them the 2nd largest Ice Age mammal in Eurasia. They originally evolved 3.7 million years ago on the grassy Tibetan Plateau, long before Ice Ages began to occur. When Ice Ages began to occur on a cyclical basis, woolly rhinos were able to expand their range across most of Eurasia. Some scientists have tied their extinction to the end of the Ice Age when the Mammoth Steppe habitat contracted. However, I disagree with this assessment because they originally evolved before Ice Ages began to occur, and they survived previous interglacial conditions. I do agree that their range contracted following the end of the last Ice Age but some steppe habitat remained as happened in previous interglacials. (Areas of Mongolia where wild and domestic horses and nomadic herders still thrive is an example of suitable steppe habitat capable of supporting woolly rhinos.) I propose the population of woolly rhinos living on relic steppe habitat after the end of the Ice Age were wiped out by men. If not for men, I believe woolly rhinos would still exist, ready to expand their range again upon commencement of the next Ice Age.
I hypothesize a similar scenario for 2 other Eurasian species of Pleistocene rhinos.
Merck’s rhino (Stephanorhinus kirchenbergensis). The background setting of the illustration is inaccurate. This species preferred temperate forest habitats.
The narrow nosed rhino (S. hemitoechus) also lived in temperate regions of Eurasia but preferred meadows and prairies.
Merck’s rhino lived in temperate forests from what’s now England east to Korea and from Germany and Poland south to Israel. It was adapted to eat forest vegetation. The narrow-nosed rhino lived over much of the same geographic range but was adapted to open grassland habitats, eating mostly grass. Both evolved from and replaced a common ancestor (S. hudsheimensis) that was adapted to eat both forest and grassland vegetation. The extinction of both species coincides with the beginning of the Last Glacial Maximum when forest and meadow were replaced by the arid Mammoth Steppe habitat. Relic habitat suitable for both temperate species of rhinos may have remained in southern Europe but relic populations of rhinos then were more vulnerable to human hunters. If not for man, I believe both of these species would have survived on these relic habitats and recolonized Europe following the end of the Ice Age.
Climate change did cause the complete extinction of rhinos in North America before the Pleistocene began. North America was home to several species of rhinos during the Miocene. The hippo-like rhino (Teloeceras major) and the hornless rhino (Aphelops) were the most common large herbivores in America other than horses for about 20 million years. Their extinction coincides with the first Ice Ages that occurred at the beginning of the Pliocene ~5 million years ago. They may have been incapable of surviving frosts or changes in vegetation. So it is possible that Pleistocene Eurasian rhinos succumbed to changing climate, but man is a strong suspect in my opinion.
Elias, Scott; and Barnaby Crocker
“The Bering Landbridge: a moisture barrier to the dispersal of steppe tundra biota”
Quaternary Science Review 27 (December 2008)
Guthrie, R. Dale
“Origin and Causes of the Mammoth Steppe, a story of cloud cover, woolly mammal tooth pits, buckles, and inside-out Beringia”
Quaternary Science Review 20 (2001)