Woolly rhino site reveals ancient British temperature

Woolly rhino skull The Staffordshire woolly rhino skeleton was one of Britain's most significant fossil finds, scientists say

Related Stories

Scientists studying an exceptionally well-preserved woolly rhinoceros have revealed details of what Britain's environment was like 42,000 years ago.

The beast's remains were discovered in Staffordshire in 2002, buried alongside other preserved organisms such as beetles and non-biting midges.

The research team used these climate-sensitive insects to calculate that summer temperatures in Britain would have averaged just 10C, and dropped to -22C in winter.

The results are published in the Journal of Quaternary Science.

Woolly rhinoceros

Meet ancient Britain's massive 'lawn-mowers'

Which Ice Age beasts roamed Britain's tundra?

How did a Scottish cave yield surprising secrets?

The discovery of the preserved woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) skeleton in a quarry at Whitemoor Haye was "the most significant fossil find of a large mammal in Britain for over 100 years," said team leader Professor Danielle Schreve from Royal Holloway, University of London.

"Woolly rhino bones and teeth are not uncommon in Britain but they are frequently heavily gnawed by predators, especially spotted hyenas."

Alongside the woolly rhinoceros skeleton, palaeontologists uncovered remains of other mammals, such as mammoths and reindeer, as well as well-preserved insects.

The research team, comprising scientists from the UK and and Netherlands, analysed these fossils for clues about what the environment in Britain was like at the time of the organisms' death.

Britain's Arctic tundra

Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the rhinoceros and other organisms lived during the middle part of the last Ice Age, known as the Devensian glaciation in Britain.

But the presence of preserved beetles and midges at the site were "particularly important" for the teams' investigation. Prof Schreve explained, "they're very sensitive to changes in climate, so they can give us direct insight into prevailing temperatures at the time."

Woolly rhino skeleton after its discovery in 2002 Woolly rhino skeleton after its discovery in a Staffordshire quarry in 2002

According to the study: "the beetle remains are strongly indicative of severely cold and continental climates akin to Asia today."

Many of the fossilised insects no longer exist in Britain, with some now found only northern Siberia or the high plateaux of central Asia.

According to Prof Schreve, the climatic conditions in Britain 42,000 years ago were "slightly warmer... compared to the earlier and late parts of the Devensian, with summer temperatures around 8-11C but winter temperatures down as low as -16 to -22C".

During this era, Britain would have looked more like an Arctic tundra landscape, where grass and herbs sustained large grazing animals such as woolly mammoths, reindeer, bison and horses.

Predators including wolves and hyenas also roamed freely.

Untimely death

The quality of the woolly rhinoceros specimen investigated for the study, complete with plant remains still in its teeth, indicates that it was buried very rapidly after it died.

The teams' analysis showed that the individual was "at his peak" when he met his death.

"There is no evidence of disease or that he was hunted so that's why we think it was an accidental death," said Prof Schreve.

Researchers concluded that the animal may have met its demise after becoming stuck in quicksand while feeding at the edge of a water channel, or that it was cut off on part of a floodplain and drowned.

Woolly rhinoceros' stocky body, thick, woolly coat and short tail and ears helped them thrive in cold, dry conditions.

However, this dense body shape may have led to the beasts' eventual extinction: it would have been almost impossible for the animals to cope in the deep snow that arrived as the climate became warmer and wetter.

Join BBC Nature on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature.

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More from nature

  • Cardinal fish and ostracodFish filmed spitting 'fireworks'

    Film crew captures ostracods' spectacular defensive lightshow that makes predatory fish spit them out.

  • Arapaima'Locally extinct'

    A giant fish which used to dominate the Amazon river is now absent in many areas

  • DragonflyRapid reactions

    Dragonfly's super quick reactions recorded in slow motion by BBC film-makers

  • Wingless adult male of the midge Belgica antarcticaExtreme survivor

    Antarctic midge's small genome may be an adaptation to its extreme environment

  • Myotis midastactus specimen (previously identified as Myotis simus)Golden discovery

    A bat from Bolivia is described as a new species by scientists

  • Dinosaurs 'shrank' to become birds

    Huge meat-eating, land-living dinosaurs evolved into birds by constantly shrinking for over 50 million years, new research shows.

  • Would we starve without bees?

    Honey bees are under threat, and as pollination significantly contributes to the food we eat, what would we do without them?

  • Eggshells may act like 'sunblock'

    Birds' eggs show adaptations in pigment concentration and thickness to allow the right amount of sun for embryos, scientists say.

  • Female shrimps are more aggressive

    Female snapping shrimps are more aggressive than males when defending their territories despite their smaller claw size, a study shows.

BBC iWonder

  • Honey bee close-upInsect intelligence

    Are honey bees as smart as your sat nav?

  • Tyrannosaurus rex skull (c) Mark Williamson / Science Photo LibraryDinosaur dynasty

    One group of dinosaurs survived and their descendants can be seen all around us today

  • Brown rat cluse upRise of the rodent

    Reports of giant, 'super rats' are filling the headlines. But why are we being overrun by rats?

  • Cuckoo portraitHoliday hotspot

    What makes the UK such an attractive destination for visiting wildlife?

There have been 75 solar eclipses and 167 major volcanic eruptions in my lifetime

Nicole Malliotakis on Twitter comments on the events that have happened since she was born by using our personalised Your Life on Earth interactive infographic.

Get Inspired


More Nature Activities >

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.