Research Publication Title of the Week – The Virtue of Modesty

26 May 2009
Comparison of the five extant species of rhinoceros - Wikimedia Commons

Comparison of the five extant species of rhinoceros - Wikimedia Commons

ANALYSIS OF COMPLETE MITOCHONDRIAL GENOMES FROM EXTINCT AND EXTANT RHINOCEROSES REVEALS LACK OF PHYLOGENETIC RESOLUTION – Eske Willerslev, Marcus Gilbert, Jonas Binladen, Simon Ho, Paula Campos, Aakrosh Ratan, Lynn Tomsho, Rute da Fonseca, Andrei Sher, Tatanya Kuznetsova, Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Terri Roth, Webb Miller  and Stephan Schuster

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:95


From our irregular series - Bloggers half-assedly opining about peer-reviewed papers when, really no one asked them in the first place anyway

From our irregular series, oh, nevermind.

Amidst the recent outcry over phylogenetic hype, it is nice to see some truth in advertising.  Sure one might quibble over whether the lack of a pattern is something that can be “revealed” but microecos never quibbles over semantics…

Semantics aside, what is tremendously cool about this paper is the recovery of mitochondrial genes from preserved soft tissues of the extinct woolly rhino, Coelodonta antiquitatis. Despite the overall lack of resolution among the clade, Willerslev and company recover strongly supported sister relationships between the two African rhinos (the white rhino, Ceratotherium simum and the black rhino, Diceros bicornis) and between the congeneric Javan and Indian rhinos (Rhinoceros sondaicus, R. unicornis).

Charles Knights famous, heroic woolly rhino

Charles Knight's iconic, heroic woolly rhino

While neither of these relationships are surprising, the authors also found support for a sister relationship between the woolly rhino and the ridiculously adorable, critically endangered Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis).  This relationship has been postulated before, at least partly based on the fact that Dicerorhinus is unique among living rhinos in sporting luscious, auburn locks that put agent Scully to shame.  However, this hypothesis has been controversial and this new paper certainly leaves the door open for considerable improvement in our understanding of the evolutionary history of living rhinos.

One of the problems here is that today we are left with only a tattered remnant of the great perissodactyl radiation that produced some of the most impressive, perplexing and yes (ahem) EXTREME mammals that have ever existed.  Aside from the four rhino genera, a handful of tapirs (all in genus Tapirus) and a rather more respectable smattering of zebras, asses and kiangs (in the familiar, but rather lumpy genus Equus) are all that remains of this once diverse order.  In the recent analysis, relationships amongst the rhino couplets changed dramatically depending on whether tapirs or horses were used as the out-group, perhaps indicating a geologically explosive radiation of rhinos from their perissodactyl ancestors at some point in the Cenzoic.

Living rhinos on the brink - from

Living rhinos on the brink - from Intl Rhino Foundation

Sadly, we stand to lose even more of this evolutionary majesty if the poaching and deforestation that imperil all living rhinos isn’t checked.  While the recovery of genetic material from the extinct woolly rhino is a remarkable achievement, it would be terribly tragic if scraps of keratin are all that future studies of rhino evolution have to go on.

But I hate to leave you on such a bitter note, so behold, the otherworldly wonder that is a baby Sumatran rhino:

Baby Rhino!

Baby Rhino!

8 Responses to “Research Publication Title of the Week – The Virtue of Modesty”

  1. Zach Miller Says:

    Seriously? It looks like a muppet.

  2. Laelaps Says:

    Great post, Neil, and thanks for the links! I will definitely have to have a look at this one.

  3. Neil Says:

    Thanks Brian. There are lots of interesting things about this paper that I didn’t get a chance to go into. It is apparently the first time genetic material from an extinct species has been recovered from nail–not sure how I resisted making a joke about Howard Hughes.

    There is also an interesting discussion to be had about the challenges of working out phylogenetic relationships within a clade that has been so heavily pruned by extinction, and the importance of incorporating fossil taxa into the analysis. It’s great that this molecular study incorporated an extinct taxon. However, a full reckoning of the evolutionary relationships among living rhinos will probably need to take the dozen or more *recently* (since the Pliocene say) extinct species into account and unfortunately the prospects for obtaining DNA from these are probably fairly dim…

  4. Laelaps Says:

    Right. Well we have seen genetic/molecular data and fossils come together to test hypotheses (relationship of cetaceans to artiodactyls, timing of the last common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees, etc.). Hopefully we will see some more collaboration and less fighting over whether fossils or genes are more relevant.

  5. hectocotyli Says:

    That’s got to be one of the best Venn diagrams I’ve ever seen.

  6. Ugly Animals Says:

    Are you serious about that Baby Rhino? Man it looks as ugly as hell. I find blob fish cuter but this one yuck!

  7. denise marinucci Says:

    I love your blog, Neil. I adored your synthesis of the Willerslev, et al. paper and the state of the poor little Sumatran rhino. I have been researching this animal off and on since last year. I have dubbed him ‘ol’ crazy eyes’ as it seems that Sumatrans’ skull morphology is different than other rhinos…next topic for research. And, yes, it is ‘ridiculously adorable’-had a backstage tour at the Cinn. zoo in November and was feeding apples to Suci, the resident female.Thanks again-you’re awesome.

    • Neil Says:

      Wow, many thanks for the kind words Denise. Very cool that you got to interact with a Sumatran rhino, I’m jealous! I don’t keep up with blogging nearly as much as I used to, but it’s so nice to hear that someone is enjoying the archives.

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