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'Woolly Rhino' Freed From Siberia's Ice, But Will it be Cloned?

Feb 27, 2015 09:39 PM EST
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(Photo : Wiki CC0 - Charles R. Knight, H. Osborn) Artist interpretation of the woolly rhinoceros.

You definitely heard of the woolly mammoth, but did you know that 10,000 years ago, some particularly hairy rhinoceros were stomping around the Sleeping Lands as well? Researchers recently got their hands on an incredibly well-preserved carcass of a baby woolly rhino - one that had been trapped in ice for thousands upon thousands of years.

The carcass was first spotted by businessman Alexander 'Sasha' Banderov, who happened to be on a hunting trip when he noticed what he and his compatriots initially thought was a reindeer's carcass.

"After it thawed and fell down [on a bank flowing into Semyulyakh River] we saw a horn on its upper jaw and realized it must be a rhino. The part of the carcass that stuck out of the ice was eaten by wild animals, but the rest of it was inside the permafrost and preserved well," the hunter told The Siberian Times, who first broke the story.

Local paleontologists quickly named the rhino "Sasha" in thanks for Banderov's sharp eyes, and are calling the discovery "sensational." This is largely because experts may be able to harvest some undamaged DNA from the tissue. This could in turn open doors for other research, with perhaps even attempts to clone the long extinct rhinoceros species.

However, it's important to note that no one has managed to pull off the same feat with the woolly mammoth - another large and hairy mammal that roamed frozen climes during the late Pleistocene (at least 11,700 years ago).

Scientists believe that the key to cloning any prehistoric beast is finding a complete copy of its DNA and finding a suitable mother. In the case of mammoths, experts have long concluded that an Asian elephant surrogate mother would do well, with some scientists excitedly gearing up to try their hands at the feat, after an exceptionally long portion of complete DNA was recovered from a surprisingly fresh 28,000-year-old mammoth by the name of "Buttercup" (discovered in 2013), according to the Natural History Museum in London.

"As a paleontologist, you normally have to imagine the extinct animals you work on... So actually coming face-to-face with a mammoth in the flesh, and being up to my elbows in slippery, wet, and frankly rather smelly mammoth liver, counts as one of the most incredible experiences of my life," museum paleobiologist Tori Herridge said after performing an autopsy on Buttercup just last November. (Scroll to read on...)Now researchers at the Mammoth Fauna Department, at the Sakha Republic Academy of Science, in Siberia, could be in for the same amazing experience as they too plan to 'dig' for DNA.

However, unlike Buttercup, cloning may not be an option for Sasha, as there's a lot more uncertainty revolving around the woolly rhino. As things stand, past - and very partial - genetic evidence from other woolly rhino remains have led researchers to believe that their closest extant relative is probably the Sumatran rhinoceros,  a species that is facing its own impending extinction as a critically engendered species.

But even if Sasha's discovery doesn't lead to a living, breathing woolly rhinoceros being born, it can still tell experts a great deal about the long-gone species that they could only speculate at before.

"We can count a number of adult woolly rhinos found around the world on fingers of one hand. A baby rhino was never found before," Albert Protopopov, Head of the Mammoth Fauna Department, said during a press conference. "The find is absolutely unique."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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