Illustration: This is what Paraceratherium linxiaense could have looked like
Photo: Yu Chen / dpa
With a body length of around eight meters and a height of up to seven meters, a truly impressive giant rhinoceros trudged through today's China more than 26 million years ago.
Remains of the giant have been excavated by researchers in the northwest of the country.
Paraceratherium linxiaense, as the animals were named, is a previously unknown species of giant rhinoceros, the researchers report in the journal "Communications Biology".
The animals were therefore among the largest land mammals that ever roamed the earth - according to the researchers, none had longer legs than the giant rhinos.
26.5 million years old
"The new giant rhinoceros Paraceratherium linxiaense weighed 24 tons, similar to the total weight of four of the largest specimens of a modern African elephant," said Tao Deng, head of the study, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
His skull was over a meter long, the shoulder height was about five meters.
Deng's team had discovered the bones in the Linxia Basin in the Chinese province of Gansu and carefully examined them, which were about 26.5 million years old.
The complete skull including the lower jaw and a cervical vertebra of an adult animal were preserved, as well as further vertebrae from a second specimen.
The head of the animals was therefore rather slender with a short trunk-like nose, the neck long.
The nasal cavity was rather deep compared to other giant rhinos.
Rhinoceros relative without a horn
Giant rhinos lived mainly in Asia, especially China, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the researchers write.
Some remains were also found in Eastern Europe, Anatolia and the Caucasus.
The animals existed from the middle Eocene to the late Oligocene, i.e. in a period from a good 47 million years ago to about 23 million years ago.
The genus Paraceratherium was the most common.
Today's relatives are the rhinos, but Paraceratherium had no horns.
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The researchers compared features of the new species with those of already known giant rhinos.
They conclude that P. linxiaense and another species are closely related to a species of giant rhinoceros found in what is now Pakistan.
Presumably, the giant rhinos were able to cross the Tibetan region before it became the high plateau it is today and which would have hindered the spread of large mammals, the scientists write.
The assumption is supported by fossil finds of fish and plants, which also suggested that the region was once below 2000 meters.
jme / dpa