Born in June 1963 in Yibin,Sichuan Province, Dr Deng Tao graduated from Peking University in 1984. Dr Deng now works as a researcher and advisor for PhD students for the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). He was awarded with the national prize for outstanding dissertation in 2000. Currently, Dr Deng assumes several positions, including deputy director for the Academic Committee of IVPP, deputy editor-in-chief with Vertebrata Palasiatica, deputy editor-in-chief with Evolution of Life, executive member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in China, and professor at the graduate school of CAS. Dr Deng has led a few key projects by the National Natural Science Foundation as well as significant orientation projects listed on CAS' Knowledge Innovation Program. He has published 124 academic articles, out of which 78 were by him as the lead author. Dr Deng has long engaged in the research of late Cenozoic mammal fossils, biostratigraphy and evolution of climate environment. And he has involved in a wide range of international cooperative projects in France, Spain, Germany and the United States.
Dr Deng has primarily conducted effective investigations in northwestern and northern China and discovered a bountiful reserve of mammal fossils. Through the thorough research into mammal fossils, Dr Deng has not only made sizable achievements in systematic Paleontology and biostratigraphy, but provided additional evidence demonstrating the dramatic rising of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and its great impact to evolution of climate environment. Dr Deng has made special efforts on the research of odd-toed ungulates fossils in late Cenozoic, especially by documenting a large number of related new materials. He has also conducted comprehensive studies into the Neogene strata in China, and made new achievements in categorization and comparison of continental strata as well as establishment of chronostratigraphic frame. All these have further improved the delicateness of comparison between China and Europe's mammal groups. Lastly but not least, Dr Deng has applied Paleoecological methods and stable enamel isotopic analysis technology to explore evolution of continental ecology, and has thoroughly examined the climate environmental background against which mammal fossils emerged, expanded and spread in China and its relationship with the global change, laying a significant ground for recovery of ancient climate and reconstruction of ancient environment.
What did you set out to discover with your research?
We started a concentrated exploration into ancient vertebrate fossils in the Zanda Basin in 2006, and discovered fossil materials of Tibetan wooly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) in the upper level of Zanda strata 10 kilometers away to the northeast of Zanda County on August 22, 2007. After painstaking excavation, we unearthed the skull, jaw bone and cervical vertebra of the adult wooly rhinoceros. An analysis through animal group comparison and paleomagnetic test has indicated the fossil's geological age to be about 3.7 million years old and in the middle of the Pliocene. An international research team has conducted extensive studies into these fossils as well as the Zanda Basin's geological conditions and environmental backgrounds. These scientists are from the IVPP of CAS, the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, Helsinki University, Florida State University, South California University, Texas University and the Gansu Provincial Museum.
What were your most significant findings?
The animal groups during the Ice Age were closely related to the global icing during the Pleistocene. The best examples were Mammoth and woolly rhinos. The discovery of the most primitive woolly rhino fossils and those of the other co-existing cold climate-adaptive animals in Tibet shows that some of the Ice Age animals had been evolving on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau before the Quaternary Period. The high-altitude Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in the freezing winter time was the "training base" for these animals, preparing them for the Ice Age climate and their later-on successful expansion to the dry cold pasture in northern European and Asian continents. The Tibetan woolly rhino's skull shape demonstrates a developed function for snow shuffle, which provides evidence that the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau was actually where woolly rhinos started its evolution.
Were these surprising?
Large-size Ice Age animals have always been drawing wide attention. They featured gigantic size and long hair, which were assumed to be developed with the ice cap expansion during the Quaternary Period. That is to say, these animals were thought to be originated from the high-altitude Arctic region. However, our discovery leads to a different result, which indicates that woolly rhinos actually originated from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau which stands further south. The plateau's high-altitude icy environment was formed way before the Quaternary Period's Ice Age. More to our surprise, in addition to woolly rhinos, we also found some other cold weather-adaptive animals, including blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), Tibetan antelopes, yaks and snow leopards, originated from the plateau, too, at least. The existence of woolly rhinos implies that the Zanda Basin had reached to a height in altitude during the Pliocene and was even higher than it is now, and therefore created a long cold climate of below zero in winter.
What are the potential implications of your findings?
Scientists used to look for the origin of the animal groups during the Quaternary Period's Ice Age which adapted to cold weather on the polar tundra and dry cold pasture in the Pliocene and early Pleistocene. Our discovery shows that we should actually look to the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau to find out about the first stage of evolution of the successful species of Mammoth on European and Asia continents and North America during the late Pleistocene. Since we know that the Zanda Basin had reached to the same height in the Pliocene as it is today, or even higher, the new evidence may provide new thinking to the structuring model of the rising of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. The emigration and expansion of woolly rhinos from Tibet to northern Europe and Asia was closely related to global climate change, which can therefore provide more details for the research into the ancient climate and environment in the Quaternary Period.
What is the next step for your research?
Woolly rhino was not the only Ice Age animal originated from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. We haven't been able to research into the primitive snow leopard, blue sheep and Qurliqnoria-ancestral Tibetan antelope-we discovered from the Pliocene strata in the Zanda Basin, and that will be our next task to do. We have discovered a skeleton of woolly rhinos during our expedition into the Zanda Basin, and will soon follow with excavation. A complete skeleton fossil will help draw more important conclusions about the shape and functions of woolly rhinos. We will also combine the geochemical methods to provide quantitative interpretations about the ancient environment around the Zanda Basin.
These are Dr. Deng Tao's written remarks. Please refer to the video interview for exact quotes.
Related Research Papers
Out of Tibet: Pliocene Woolly Rhino Suggests High-Plateau Origin of Ice Age Megaherbivores
Press release: Tibetan Plateau a cold cradle for Ice-Age giants