The Woolly Rhinoceros

Mammoths are not the only Ice Age species to be naturally preserved in forms that can be considered mummies. An Ice Age contemporary of the woolly mammoth was the woolly rhinoceros

(Coelodonta sp.), which appears in beautiful Paleolithic cave paintings in Europe. The animal is known from skeletal remains, but these all pale beside one quite extraordinary find from Starunia in the western Ukraine. An adult female woolly rhino was discovered here in 1929, in a very unusual preservation environment: A so-called tar pit within an ozokerite mine was found to hold the nearly complete body of a woolly rhino. Although the beast had lost its fur (and its hooves), the soft tissues were protected from decay by the microbe-hostile environment created by the salt and oil in the surrounding sediments. Ozokerite is a petroleum-related mineral wax. This unique specimen can be seen in the Natural History Museum at Krakow in Poland. Only in 2004 were new expeditions to the remarkable Starunia site considered, and it may yet yield further finds of interest, perhaps even new mummies.

Still other examples of natural animal mummies could be cited, such as the occasional desiccated seal that turns up in dry Antarctic valleys, but these instances give a sense of how rare natural animal mummies are, and how extraordinary conditions must be to allow them. This survey has also suggested some of the special scientific value of soft-tissue mummies. It is only with an understanding of the phenomenal rarity of natural animal mummies that one can fully appreciate the significance of soft-tissue fossils and animal mummies from the greater depths of prehistory.

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