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SOS Rhino : In the News : Intact rhinoceros skeleton found in South Dakota

Intact rhinoceros skeleton found in South Dakota

  Chicago Tribune
September 2003

WASHINGTON -- Buffalo and antelope weren't the only critters to roam the Great Plains.

The National Park Service announced Tuesday that it has identified fossil remains excavated from South Dakota's Wind Cave National Park as belonging to -- of all things -- a rhinoceros.

According to park service paleontologist Greg McDonald, who made the find, the animal was a smaller, distant cousin of the rhinos in present-day Africa, and lived approximately 32 million years ago.

"Back then, the climate of South Dakota was more like Florida's," McDonald said in a telephone interview. "The area was heavily forested. The grasslands we know as the Great Plains were only just beginning to emerge."

McDonald said that bits and pieces of other rhinoceroses have been unearthed in North America before, but this discovery is unique because of its northern location and because so much of the animal, also called a Subhyracodon, is intact.

Also, the excavation site has yielded the remains of several other prehistoric animals, including a greyhound-sized horse, a primitive deer related to the saber-toothed deer of East Asia, a prehistoric rabbit and a mysterious, carnivorous creature that park service scientists think could be a prehistoric dog.

"This is a really extraordinary find," McDonald said. "Most previous discoveries have been single bones and isolated teeth. To find not only a complete (rhinoceros) skull and jaws but part of the skeleton as well was totally unexpected. Finding remains from the other animals helps us reconstruct what the ancient ecosystem of the Wind Cave area was like approximately 32 million years ago."

McDonald said the discovery was made July 23, when he and cave management specialist Rod Horrocks were inventorying a section of the park -- which lies south of Mt. Rushmore on state Highway 87 -- and noticed a row of teeth protruding from the ground.

Stopping to examine them, they then saw what proved to be a portion of a rhinoceros skull and more teeth visible in the dirt.

Gathering staff from Wind Cave, Badlands National Park and the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, S.D., home to prehistoric woolly mammoth fossils, they spent a week carefully stabilizing and removing these few fossils, only to discover the better part of a rhino skeleton and the remains of the several other animals beneath.

McDonald said work is continuing and further excavation may yield more old bones.

"That this area was once a watering hole of some kind is a good theory," he said. "The soil was largely clay and it appears the animals' bones were pushed down into it over the years."

The scientist said the rhino likely weighed between 300 and 400 pounds and, unlike its fearsome modern-day African cousin, had no horn. "But it was a rhinoceros," he said.

The species survived and even thrived in North American from 30 million to 39 million years ago, he said. This was long after the disappearance of the dinosaurs and after the continental drift that put North America and Eurasia on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

This period was long before the Ice Ages, ruling those frosty events out as the probable cause of the North American rhino's demise.

"There were land bridges to Asia and Europe back then," he said. "It may be the rhinos were done in by migrating predators -- various kinds of saber-toothed cats and a hyenalike primitive dog with a huge head and powerful jaws. Saber teeth are ideal for penetrating thick rhino skin."