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Yang Wang

Yang Wang is known for conducting complex research using highly sophisticated equipment. Yet the Florida State University geochemist also has spent days hiking through the remote outback of Tibet and camping in the foothills of the Himalayas — all in the name of scientific discovery.

Because of that unique mix of skills, Wang was chosen to take part in a team of researchers that uncovered the oldest prehistoric woolly rhino ever found. A paper describing the team's discovery was just published in Science, the prestigious international journal that has an estimated total readership of 1 million. (An abstract of the paper is available here; access to the full article requires a paid subscription.)

Wang and an international group of paleontologists set out in 2007 to explore one of the most isolated places on Earth: the Zanda (ZAH-dah) Basin in Tibet, located at the feet of the Himalaya Mountains. The words majestic, wild and awesome all apply, yet fail to capture the landscape's natural wonder.

What drew the researchers to the basin wasn't its raw beauty, however. They came to explore its buried treasures. The largely untouched Zanda Basin is a fossil hunter's paradise, and the team was determined to make scientific breakthroughs.

They did just that, finding the complete skull and lower jaw of a previously unknown and long-extinct animal. They christened it the Tibetan woolly rhino (Coelodonta thibetana).

"This is the oldest, most primitive woolly rhino every found," Wang said of the team's discovery.

The ancient beast stood perhaps 6 feet tall and 12 to 14 feet long. It bore two great horns. One grew from the tip of its nose and was about 3 feet long. A much smaller horn arose from between its eyes. The Tibetan woolly rhino was stocky like today's rhino but had long, thick hair. It is often mentioned in the same breath with woolly mammoths, giant sloths and sabertooth cats, all giant mammals of the period that became extinct.

Prior to the team's discovery, the oldest woolly rhino ever found was 2.6 million years old, making it an inhabitant of the Pleistocene era (2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago). But the Tibetan woolly rhino found by the team is 3.7 million years old. That means it lived during the Pliocene epoch (5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago).

The new time frame also indicates that the Tibetan woolly rhino was alive before the last Ice Age. Wang examined the chemistry of the rhino's fossilized teeth using a special instrument, a mass spectrometer, at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State.

"We look at the chemistry of the teeth and bones, to see what the animals ate and what kind of environment they lived in," said Wang, a professor in the university's Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science.

Her detailed analysis revealed that the creature ate grasses that grew at high altitudes. That suggests, Wang said, that when the Ice Age arrived, the Tibetan woolly rhino adapted by moving from the mountains to lower altitudes.

The expedition team also found horse, elephant and deer fossils. Most of the fossils, including the Tibetan woolly rhino's complete skull, are being kept at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, at its Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

Wang and other members of the team, led by Xiaoming Wang, curator of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, plan to return to the basin again in the summer of 2012.

"Cold places, such as Tibet, the Arctic and the Antarctic, are where the most unexpected discoveries will be made in the future — these are the remaining frontiers that are still largely unexplored," said Xiaoming Wang.

For more information on the Tibetan woolly rhino, contact Yang Wang at (850) 644-1121 or ywang4@fsu.edu.

By Kathleen Laufenberg
9 September 2011

 
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