The Sumatran rhino has been close to the point of extinction for almost one million years and now it’s ‘hanging on a thread’, according to new research.
Scientists have mapped the endangered creatures’ full genome for the first time to reveal that its troubles started a very long time ago.
It first began to face problems during last Ice Age when our ancestors were first spreading through Africa, Europe and Asia – and iconic extinct beasts like mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers roamed the planet.
By 2011, only about 200 Sumatran rhinos were believed to remain living in the wild.
The complete DNA was mapped from a sample belonging to a male at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Professor Herman Mays, of Marshall University, West Virginia, said: ‘Our genome sequence data revealed the Pleistocene was a roller coaster ride for Sumatran rhinoceros populations.’
The Sumatran rhino peaked at a time when fossil evidence shows an invasion of continental mammals into Southeast Asia, which was then a subcontinent called Sundaland that was twice the size of modern India, stretching from Burma to Borneo.
This was around 900,000 years ago. By about 12,000 years ago, the end of the Pleistocene, many large mammals had suffered, and Sumatran rhinos were no exception.
Rising sea levels submerged the Sundaland corridor, and land bridges connecting the islands of Borneo, Java and Sumatra to the Malay Peninsula and mainland Asia disappeared into the ocean.
As a result, the population of rhinos shrunk as suitable habitat became increasingly fragmented.
Since that time, Sumatran rhinoceros populations have only dwindled further due to increasing pressures related to habitat loss and hunting.
Dr Terri Roth, of the Centre for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, said: ‘This species has been well on its way to extinction for a very long time.’
The researchers estimate the Sumatran rhino peaked at about 57,800 individuals about 950,000 years ago.
By 9,000 years ago, the genome evidence suggests, the effective population size was reduced to only about 700.
The findings suggest that climate change in the distant past reduced the genetic diversity of Sumatran rhinos, leaving them even more vulnerable to later pressures from human activity.
The DNA sample Prof Mays and his team sequenced belonged to a rhino named Ipuh, after the locality on the island of Sumatra where he was originally collected.
Ipuh lived at the Cincinnati Zoo for 22 years until his death in 2013, and his remains are still on display at the Cincinnati Museum Centre.
Dr Roth reports two of Ipuh’s sons continue to live at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Sumatra. One of them has already sired two calves.
She added: ‘The Sumatran rhinoceros species is hanging on by a thread. We need to do more to save it.’
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