Around five million years ago, the animals of the genus Chilotherium became extinct without any human influence. These creatures, similar to today’s rhinoceroses but without horns, are among their ancestors. In contrast to today’s rhinoceros species, which can reach remarkable speeds of up to 55 kilometres per hour, Chilotherium representatives would certainly have lost a race due to their short legs and bulging bellies. Nevertheless, they travelled in south-eastern Europe and Asia.
Only less than 50 specimens of the Sumatran rhinoceros left
The challenge for researchers worldwide is to find reference fossils for two species of Chilotherium, as the original ones in the Bavarian State Collection of Palaeontology and Geology (BSPG) were lost during the bombing of Munich in April 1944. An international research team therefore searched for further specimens in museums in Germany, Austria, France, Greece and Switzerland. They were successful at the Museum der Natur Hamburg and the Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museum Frankfurt, where they discovered two fossilised skulls of hornless rhinoceroses. These are now proposed as a new reference in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Palaeontologist Manon Hullot from the BSPG emphasises the importance of this discovery for the palaeontological community. At the same time, the text points out that three of the five rhinoceros species living in Africa and Asia are currently threatened with extinction. While African rhino numbers are slowly recovering, there are less than 50 of the Sumatran rhino left. This is largely due to illegal hunting for their horns. In contrast to other horn species, such as those of sheep or antelopes, the rhino horn does not consist of bone, but of keratinised skin cells that grow back for life, similar to hair or nails in humans.