Some 80,000 years ago, our planet began to cool, heralding the dawn of the last ice age. The Arctic ice sheets expanded, covering about half of the North American continent. Nevertheless, south of this huge block of ice, life flourished in unexpected ways. This was a land of giants like the Woolly Mammoths, Saber-Toothed Cats, Dire Wolves, Giant Ground Sloths, and Glyptodonts.
In the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, however, the story was quite different. These lands had their own class of giants who evolved differently from their American counterparts and became the masters of their domain, up until fairly recently; a geological instant in terms of the planet’s history. Check out 10 of these incredible creatures who once dominated the Old World.
10. The Cave Bear
With males reaching up to 2,200 pounds, the cave bear was among the largest carnivores to roam the Old World. And as its name suggests, this particular species was fond of caves. While most bears today look for such places in winter so they can hibernate in peace and quiet until spring finally arrives, these ice age monsters in particular seem to have made caves their permanent homes. This is also the reason for why so many fossils have been found, since many cave bears also found their ends there. After their discovery, it was believed that these bears lived in relative large numbers. But later research showed that no more than one or two bears inhabited a cave at a time. The large number of fossils found in these caves is a direct result of thousands of years, and countless bears inhabiting them over the centuries.
Like other bears of today, the cave bear was predominantly a plant eater. It foraged on berries and nuts it found throughout the forests surrounding its cave. Tooth analysis, together with isotope markers found in its fossils, also indicate that cave bears were partial meat-eaters, sometimes supplementing their diet by scavenging. Such remains were found all throughout Europe, western Russia, and northern parts of the Middle East. But because they lived in caves, their habitat was restricted to areas between lowland plains and high level mountains that would have had a greater variety of trees and vegetation growing in them. These areas have a larger concentration of caves in general. This is where this species of bear mostly lived.
With the arrival of early humans, as well as the Neanderthals who lived in Europe, the cave bear slowly gave way to these newcomers. As humans and Neanderthals alike mostly lived in caves throughout this period, the cave bear ultimately succumbed to habitat loss. Nevertheless, it seems that early humans held them in high regard. There are several burial sites in Europe where the remains of several bears have been assembled in pits and then covered with stone slabs. How and why these bears were worshiped is unknown today, and it’s possible that they were either regarded as a totem animal, or as a ward against other cave bears wandering into Neanderthal settlements.
9. The Irish Elk
Often called the Irish Elk, the Megaloceros was also sometimes called the Giant Deer. Though the first remains were discovered in Ireland, later discoveries have shown that the Irish Elk was abundant throughout most of Eurasia, in the Northern half especially. Standing at 6.5 feet at the shoulder, the Irish Elk was the biggest of the deer species to have ever existed. But this is not what’s particularly striking about this creature. More noteworthy were its huge antlers. Greater than even those of the present-day Canadian Moose, these antlers could reach an astounding width of up to 11.5 feet from tip to tip. Of course, many scientists also believe these antlers were also the reason for their demise.
As temperatures began to change and become warmer, spelling the end of the ice age, plants suited for this climate became scarcer and were replaced by new, less nutritious ones. This in turn may have caused the Irish Elk to have less powerful overall bone structure, since it had to grow those huge antlers year after year and had to take those nutrients from somewhere. Many scientists today believe this to be the main reason for the elk’s disappearance, even though early humans may have had a small part to play here. Nevertheless, a direct link between the first areas to be hit by climate change and the first of the elk to disappear can be seen in the fossil records.
We know, from early cave paintings, Irish Elks likely had a dark brown coat with a white underbelly (similar to other deer today), and that it also had a slight bump right below its neckline. This is also backed up by their fossil spine structure. The hump served the purpose of storing fat for the leaner times of the year. This, however, must have not been enough to keep the Irish Elk going when the whole world around him was changing.
8. The Woolly Rhino
While rhinos are seen with less frequency these days, they were extremely common millions of years ago throughout Eurasia. The biggest difference between present-day rhinos and woolly ones is that the latter had a thick lining of fur all over their bodies. This kept them warm while grazing right at the edge of the ice age glaciers. As these ice sheets swept back and forth over the land, they left behind a roughly flat surface, as a sort of frozen plain where grasses interspersed with low growing vegetation. It was a perfect habitat for the woolly rhino to thrive in. Besides its fur, the woolly rhino was also equipped with a thick layer of fat, as well as a hump on its upper back in order to fend off the cold, similar to the Irish Elk above, or the present-day camel. It also had short legs in order to minimize its body surface exposed to the elements.
No description of a rhino can go without talking about its horn. The woolly rhino had two huge ones. The largest was at the tip of its snout, and could reach up to 6.5 feet in length. The other, smaller one was about half or even two-thirds the size. Like in present-day rhinos, these horns were used for mating rights in order to attract females. A long horn displayed a male who was capable of reaching well into adult life. The difference between current rhino horns and the woolly rhino’s was its shape. Instead of being conical in shape, these huge horns were shaped similar to a blade and were facing forward, away from its snout. Scientists believe this to be an adaptation in the frozen north, as the woolly rhino was able to scrape snow off of grass. While this is still just a theory, it does make sense from an evolutionary point of view.
The earliest remains of Coelodonta (woolly rhino) come from the Indian subcontinent and date back to the end of the Pliocene period. The majority of fossils, however, come from Europe and Russia, and date back much earlier, to the Calabrian of the Pleistocene. This indicates that the woolly rhino first originated in central Asia and then found its way northwest as the climate facilitated this migration.
Though its name translates to “Terrible Beast,” Deinotherium was anything but. “Awesome” would be a better word to describe it. With the exception of Paraceratherium, no other terrestrial mammal has ever been larger. Standing at 14.7 feet at the shoulder, there have been cases of larger males reaching as high as 16 feet. But what makes this “awesome beast” stand out from all the other elephant-like species was its two downward pointing short tusks, which were curved in an arc that sees the tips pointing towards to the front feet, when the head is carried at a horizontal level.
Besides pointing in the other direction than those of other elephants, these tusks emerged from the lower jaw as opposed to the upper. Their purpose still baffles scientists today. But since elephants today use theirs in order to find food, it stands to reason that Deinotherium used them in the same manner. Some have speculated that they used them to also dig for roots and tubers, or even to “hook” tree branches, and together with their trunks, bring them down for easier access. Others believe that they used them to peel the bark off of trees, or to better differentiate their own species among the many other elephant-like ones which also lived at the same time. Whatever the case may be, we have to keep in mind that all of these situations could have been true, and maybe even others we don’t yet know.
Even if the first fossils were found in Europe, it was later discovered that Deinotherium originated in Africa and then radiated outwards troughout Europe and Asia, becoming the most prominent species of the Pliocene period. However, it never came in contact with early humans, having already gone extinct.
6. The Giant Ape
In 1935, while browsing a Chinese apothecary market in Hong Kong, paleontologist Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald stumbled upon an unusually large molar tooth. It struck him as something definitely originating from a creature never before seen by modern scientific eyes at the time. Such astonishing finds were somehow common in such Asian medicine markets, as another 1,300 teeth and several jawbones have also been recovered. These were known as “dragon bones” by the locals and merchants.
Studies have shown they belonged to an ape species of giant proportions. What’s really fascinating is that they coexisted with Homo erectus in Southeast Asia for more than 500,000 years before mysteriously going extinct. Not long after their publication in the scientific records, theories began circulating that this Giant Ape, Gigantopithecus, was the elusive Himalayan Yeti. Unfortunately, however, nothing conclusive has been brought forth to properly make the bridge between these two species. Even some Bigfoot researchers consider it unlikely, or even impossible.
We also have to keep in mind there’s very little information about this Giant Ape. But by examining the existing teeth and several jawbones we do have, we were able to deduce a surprisingly great deal of things. For starters, we know it was a strict plant-eater, capable of chewing through tough vegetation like bamboo; which was prevalent in the region. The closest we could get in terms of its approximate size and overall appearance was that it was close to 10 feet in height when standing upright. But chances are that it didn’t do so often, and adopted a more quadrupedal posture, with only short bursts of walking on two legs, like gorillas today. But according to its jaw shape and structure, it’s more probable that it resembled an orangutan.
What made it go extinct is difficult to determine. Since there are no fossils above the 300,000 year sediment line, we believe with some certainty that this is the time extinction happened. Some teeth show signs of mineral insufficiency in their enamel, leading to the belief that there was insufficient food and possibly a loss of habitat. But this is highly speculative and the best theory so far is that the reason for their disappearance was a series of factors, and not one freak planetary incident.
5. The Cave Hyena
The now-extinct cave hyena, which lived throughout Eurasia, looked nearly identical to its modern-day counterpart. Besides having a longer femur and humerus, the resemblance between them was uncanny. Even its fur was identical, as depicted in Neanderthal pictograms found in caves throughout Europe. But what is less known about them, however, is that they changed the entire course of human history. They are considered the main reason for why man wasn’t able to cross into North America via the Bering land bridge any sooner. It wasn’t until the cave hyena was gone that man was able to make that trek.
The common image of the hyena is that of a scavenger, overwhelming a predator and chasing it from its kill, on the account of it living in packs. And while this is true, there are also countless cases where hyenas hunted their own prey. This adaptation was also present in the now-extinct hyena, as many remains from different species have been found it the caves it inhabited. Nevertheless, the majority seem to be from wild horses like Przewalski’s horse or the mighty Woolly Rhino, suggesting that they specialized in hunting these two species in particular. It is also believed that they even killed and ate cave bears on occasion, but it’s more likely they feasted on already dead ones they found.
Cave hyenas also had frequent contact with Neanderthals, having to compete for the dens both species inhabited. Their demise came with the end of the ice age, as temperatures rose and previous grasslands gave way to forests. This new habitat was no longer suited for its favorite prey, and it had to make due with whatever else it could find. Not to mention that a new competitor made its presence felt in the area. The wolf was a contemporary of the cave hyena, but never truly came in contact on the account of the difference in environments they thrived in. In short, the wolf was far better suited for a forest life, not to mention the hyena no longer had the advantage of numbers on its side.
4. Panthera Leo Spelaea
Panthera leo spelaea, more commonly known as the Eurasian cave lion, was the largest feline to prowl the northern reaches of Eurasia. It was a close relative to its North American counterpart, Panthera leo atrox. Unlike the previous cave dwellers we mentioned above, this lion doesn’t seem to have made caves a permanent home. Remains of this prehistoric lion have been found in areas where caves are nonexistent, and it seems to have had a great resistance to cold. It also seems that the cave lion made it a habit to attack cave bears in their dens while hibernating, or to snatch their young when they weren’t looking. Nevertheless, its main diet, according to the isotope markers found in its bones, was composed of mostly reindeer, which it hunted by stalking from the underbrush.
Besides the fossil record, more information about these lions comes from their inclusion in cave art, which depict them as having manes, as well as faint stripes running down their bodies. This would have helped them blend in better with their forest surroundings, as well as to protect them from the low temperatures. Ultimately they shared a fate similar to most other animals here in this list, with climate change altering its habitat. Even though it should have thrived in the ever expanding forests, the decreased number of large herbivores as well as the added competition from cave hyenas, wolves, and humans, made it impossible for the Panthera leo to go on. Some evidence suggest that some small pockets managed to survive for another 10 thousand years in southeastern Europe, but even these didn’t make it past the Pleistocene period.
3. Siva’s Beast
Siva’s beast, or Sivatherium, was initially believed to have been part of the elephant family. When this was disproven, it was classified as an antelope. Only with the help of French naturalist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in the early 19th century did we manage to realize that, in fact, it was a member of the giraffe family. Its body proportions were somewhat strange and unfamiliar to us today, but back then many prehistoric giraffes had a similar build. Also somewhat similar to a moose, it had a strong build around the shoulders, and a body that was supported by long, relatively thin legs. A living species of similar characteristics is the Okapi (Okapia johnstoni) from central Africa.
Sivatherium’s head was adorned with two series of horns. A pair of smaller ossicones (similar to those of a giraffe) was just above the eyes, while two larger horns would rise up from the back of the skull, and which loosely resembled moose antlers. Initially it was believed that Siva’s beast had a short trunk or extended movable lip with which it was able to grab vegetation more easily. This is now thought to have not been the case, since it’s more probable that it had a long prehensile tongue, like other giraffe species of today. But since this is soft tissue we’re talking about here, it unfortunately wasn’t preserved in the fossil record. We can only speculate what Siva’s beast actually looked like. Nevertheless, what we do know for certain is that it stood around seven feet tall at the shoulder and probably weighed in at about 4,000 pounds, making it the largest ruminant that’s ever existed, only going extinct some 11,000 years ago.
The Pleistocene, together with the earlier period of the Pliocene, are well documented as having a large number of different species of felines roaming all over the world as top predators. As this list can attest, this statement was largely true. And this species in particular was interesting, to say the least. Homotherium, or sometimes called the Scimitar-Toothed Cat, had two enlarged canines, from where it also draws its nickname. But these teeth were nowhere near as long as those of the infamous Saber-Toothed Cat. Though they never got past its lower jaw in terms of length, its canines had serrated edges, good for slicing through flesh and creating wide open wounds, which would make its victims die of eventual blood loss. However, just like the Saber-Toothed Cat, Homotherium’s “blades” were somewhat fragile and were rarely put in risky situations.
Scimitar-Toothed Cat remains can be found all throughout the Northern Hemisphere, including in North America, and it was especially suited for the cold weather. It stood more on the flat of its foot rather than balancing on its toes, like many felines do today. This gave it the advantage of walking on thick snow with relative ease, without sinking in as much. Another adaptation was its long forelegs and shoulders that result in its back sloping downwards, giving it a hyena-like appearance. Thanks to this adaptation, Homotherium was good at preserving energy while traveling long distances. Similar to the wolf, this feline may have opted to chase its prey for long periods of time until it eventually collapsed by exhaustion. This, in turn, may indicate that it hunted and lived in prides, just like modern-day lions.
There are examples in the fossil record where Scimitar-Toothed Cats preferred hunting large herbivorous mammals found in the Northern reaches of the world, and may have had an inclination for juvenile mammoths. Like most of the megafauna of the time Homotherium went extinct at the end of the last ice age, when steppes were replaced by forests and its favorite large prey was no longer to be found. More competition, including early humans and possibly even disease, may have all caused their disappearance to a degree. They first disappeared in Africa more than 1.5 million years ago, but survived in Eurasia up until some 30,000 years ago. North America was their last bastion, however, surviving here for an extra 20,000 years.
Sometimes called the “Siberian Unicorn,” this mighty creature was no myth. But it didn’t quite resemble a unicorn, either. Rather, it was more a rhino on steroids. The reason it’s called as such, however, is the huge horn on its face. Since it was most likely made out of keratin (the same material fingernails are made out of), it unfortunately doesn’t withstand the test of time and no Elasmotherium horn fossils exist today. Nevertheless, there is a round dome growth present on the skull where the horn would be expected to be. What shape it had or how big it actually was, is left to our own imagination.
So far, three sub-species are recognized, with the largest and most recognizable being E. sibiricum, the size of a mammoth. The purpose for its horn was to drive off predators and competitors, to attract mates and scrape off snow from grass, similar to the Woolly Rhino above. Its legs, however, were longer than any other rhino species and were even adapted for galloping. But this is highly speculative and depends on the various interpretations of its weight. Unlike many other herbivorous species, their molars were ever-growing, adding layers of enamel from within, similar to the rings inside a tree. Another subject of debate about the Siberian Unicorn is whether it had fur or not. We have to keep in mind that the Pleistocene was not a continuous ice age period, but rather a back and forth in terms of planetary temperatures. This may suggest that Elasmotherium grew its fur when needed and then renouncing it when times were warmer.