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Mammoth Find: Huge Hippos And Mammoths Prowled Europe’s Ancient Rivers 

Giant hippos and mammoths shared their habitat during the last Ice Age, carbon dating on remains reveals. 

Germany’s Rhine River was home to hippos around 30,000 years ago, a study has found, contradicting previous beliefs that they died out in the region 116,000 years ago. This means the mammals that are now only native to Africa once roamed the European riverbank alongside woolly mammoths.

Experts from the Reiss Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, the Curt Engelhorn Center for Archaeometry and the University of Potsdam examined hundreds of bones during a five-year investigation that has confirmed that hippos (Hippopotamus amphibious) inhabited Germany at the same time as the woolly mammoth.

“It’s amazing how well the bones are preserved. It was possible to take valuable samples from many skeletal remains,” said Ronny Friedrich, an age determination expert at the Curt Engelhorn Center for Archaeometry.

Friedrich and his colleagues examined a total of 30 hippo bones and confirmed that the animals lived in the Upper Rhine area at the same time as mammoths, woolly rhinos and cave lions.

The Reiss Engelhorn Museum will host an exhibit on the project in its Ice Age Safari section, where visitors will be taken on a journey from 40,000 to 15,000 years ago, with models of hippos and giant woolly mammoths on display.

A model of the hippopotamus that lived on the Rhine River in Germany at the same time as mammoths is on display in the “Ice Age Safari” exhibit at the Reiss Engelhorn Museum. (REM, Rebecca Kind/Zenger)

Museum researchers used radiocarbon dating to confirm that the hippopotamus lived in the Upper Rhine between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago. It was previously believed that all hippos had died out in Germany 116,000 years ago, at the end of the last warming period.

The flora and fauna of the Upper Rhine, which runs between Basel in Switzerland and Bingen in Germany, would have been vastly different from the present day during this period.

The river would have been home to hippos that can reach a weight of 3,310 lbs (1,500 kilograms) along with giant woolly mammoths and cave lions, among other now-extinct species, according to researchers.

“The hippopotamus is a real Ice Age inhabitant [of] the Rhine,” said Reiss Engelhorn Museum director-general Wilfried Rosendahl. He suggested this meant “the animals were able to adapt well” to the frigid conditions in the Upper Rhine Rift Valley.

Moreover, deeper investigation suggests the climate in the Upper Rhine Rift Valley was milder than previously assumed.

The hippopotamus is now known to have lived on the Rhine River in Germany alongside mammoths, dying out only 30,000 years ago, a new study has revealed. (REM, Rebecca Kind/Zenger)

In addition to bones, scientists also analyzed wood samples and discovered that oak trees with a circumference of up to 41 inches (80 centimeters) grew around 40,000 years ago in the Upper Rhine region.

“In the last Ice Age, stately oaks still grew in our region — something that we [had] not previously thought possible,” said Rosendahl.

The hippopotamus is a large, herbivorous, semiaquatic mammal that is now native only to sub-Saharan Africa.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature categorizes the hippo as a “vulnerable species” on its Red List of Threatened Species, which means that the species will face extinction in the near future unless steps are taken to protect it.

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler