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SOS Rhino : In the News : Prehistoric rhino fills giant gap in the story of Africa

Prehistoric rhino fills giant gap in the story of Africa

  By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
(Filed: 04/12/2003)

A new species of the rhino-like Arsinoitherium has been found in the highlands of Ethiopia, one of a range of fossils from 27 million years ago that fill a gap in our understanding of evolution.

Several of the fossils mark the earliest evidence for some of today's African mammals, such as elephants, while others, such as Arsinoitherium, represent the last redoubts of species thought to be extinct long before.

If Arsinoitherium was still alive today "it would be the central attraction at the zoo", said palaeontologist Dr Tab Rasmussen, of Washington University.

Five proboscidean varieties (distant cousins of today's elephants) were also discovered, including primitive and more modern forms. Deinotheres, peculiar proboscideans with downward-curved lower tusks, were also uncovered - their oldest appearance yet.

The finds are all the more remarkable because they come from a time when Afro-Arabia was an island continent, still separate from Eurasia. When the continents collided, animals began to mingle between the territories and, while the arsinoitheres became extinct, proboscideans flourished. The finds are described today in the journal Nature by a team from the American universities of Texas, Washington and Michigan, as well as Addis Ababa University and the National Museum, both in Ethiopia.

The dynamics of animal populations from 24 million to 32 million years ago has been poorly understood, said Dr John Kappelman, project leader. "These are the 'missing years' for Afro-Arabia," he added.

At about 24 million years ago Afro-Arabian began to dock with Europe and Asia. "We believe that event set into motion both the eventual extinction of the more primitive species as well as the modernisation of the rest of the African fauna," he said.

The arsinoitheres and more primitive proboscideans became extinct, perhaps out-competed by invading species, while the ancestors of today's elephants flourished in spite of the immigrants and carried their adaptations out of Afro-Arabia to colonise the rest of the world.

"The story of elephant evolution is one that we have long suspected to have occurred entirely in Africa," said Dr William Sanders, of the University of Michigan. "These new fossils provide the evidence that we needed to lock down this story."