The remains of a 26.5-million-year-old giant, hornless rhino — one of the largest mammals ever to walk Earth — have been discovered in northwestern China, a new study finds.
The team that found the remains reported that the ancestor of the giant rhinoceros was found in present-day Gansu Province, located on the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
A team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing noted that the creature is “the largest mammal that ever lived on the planet”, with a length of 26 feet (about 8 meters) and a height of 16 feet (about 5 meters).
The massive creature, called Paraceratherium linxiaense, weighed 24 tons and was four times heavier than the African elephant and is the largest animal to walk on Earth today.
The hornless herbivore roamed Asia 26.5 million years ago, exploring forests in search of leaves, soft plants and shrubs, looking similar to an oversized tapir.
The fossilized remains of this giant beast, whose neck allowed it to reach trees up to 23 feet (7 meters) high, were dug up at a prehistoric animal cemetery in Gansu, northwest China.
|The giant, well-preserved skull and jaw of one of the newly identified Paraceratherium linxiaense individuals. (Image credit: Tao, D. Communications Biology (2021); CC-BY-4.0)|
A Chinese researcher said the strange animal had a slender skull, short torso and unusually long neck, adding that it was a “friendly giant”.
On the way across the Asian continent, the creature encounters hyenas and giant prehistoric crocodiles, carrying the frozen wilderness of the Ice Age.
Professor Deng said: ‘The tusk-like incisors are mainly used to break branches and tree bark, as well as to bend higher branches.
According to the study’s lead author, the skull and legs are longer than all reported land mammals, making them suitable for open forests under wet or arid conditions.
Paraceratherium was identified from the perfectly preserved skull, jaw and atlas vertebra, and the atlas vertebra is known as the first neck vertebra in the spine that supports the head.
Specimens of giant rhinos are rare, mostly fragments. These are among the best found so far, and help fill in an important branch in the monster’s family tree.
Paraceratherim, described in Communications Biology on June 17, is closely related to the giant rhinoceros in Pakistan, suggesting that it passed through the Tibet region.
At that time, Central Asia was arid, while South Asia was relatively humid, with a mosaic of forested and open landscapes, where giant rhinos likely browsed for food, Tao said.
During the late Oligocene, tropical conditions allowed giant rhinos to trek northward, back to Central Asia. It appears that the far-flung P. bugtiense crossed the Tibetan region, and evolved into two closely-related species: the newly found P. linxiaense, known from China, and P. lepidum, known from China and Kazakhstan.
Given that some of the world’s largest mammals took this impressive journey, it’s likely that the Tibetan region “was still not uplifted as a high-elevation plateau” at that time, Tao said. It may have been under 6,600 feet (2,000 m) during the Oligocene, and “giant rhinos could have dispersed freely through this region,” he said.