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This One Might Not Be Due to Humans

An analysis of ancient DNA suggests people might not be the culprit behind the demise of the woolly rhinoceros, the Economist reports.

Researchers led by Stockholm University's Love Dalén sequenced the nuclear genome of one woolly rhinoceros and the mitochondrial genomes of 14 woolly rhinoceroses (Coelodonta antiquitatis) that lived between 14,000 and 50,000 years ago. Woolly rhinoceroses went extinct about 14,000 years ago, not too long after humans settled in northern Eurasia about 30,000 years ago, suggesting to scientists that people may have had a hand to their disappearance.

As they report in Current Biology this week, Dalén and his colleagues found no evidence of reduced genetic diversity or increased inbreeding among woolly rhinoceros following the arrival of humans and estimated that their population size was fairly steady in the 13,000 years after humans arrived. Instead, they argue that the sudden population contraction among woolly rhinoceros was likely due to the rapid warming of the Bølling-Allerød interstadial period between about 12,800 and 14,600 years ago.

"We're coming away from the idea of humans taking over everything as soon as they come into an environment, and instead elucidating the role of climate in megafaunal extinctions," co-first author Edana Lord, a PhD student at Stockholm, says in a statement. "Although we can't rule out human involvement, we suggest that the woolly rhinoceros' extinction was more likely related to climate."