Nov 30, 2018 I Brett Tingley

Scientists Unravel the Mystery of the Siberian Unicorn

The unicorn might be a fantastical creature found only within the pages and filmstrips of fiction, but at least one real-life unicorn has walked the Earth before - that we know of at least. The Elasmotherium sibiricum, or “Siberian unicorn,” is an extinct type of one-horned ancient rhinoceros which once roamed the area that is now Eurasia from about 2.5 million years ago to right up until the Stone Age. In fact, there is some archaeological evidence that the Siberian unicorn and humans once lived side-by-side on the steppes of Western Siberia.

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The Siberian unicorn (light gray) would have dwarfed even the largest humans.

While scientists have known about the Siberian unicorn for around a century, they have had only a few scattered fossil records to go on. As a result, the creature has remained somewhat of a mystery. However, an international team of researchers were recently able to assemble a collection of 23 different Siberian unicorn bone specimens in order to try and uncover more about this relatively unknown creature. After performing radiocarbon dating and DNA analyses on the specimens, the team has now published a new study on Elasmotherium sibiricum which sheds some light on the lives of this “unicorn.”

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Not exactly the cuddly rainbow-pooping unicorns of Lisa Frank.

According to the study, most of the Siberian unicorn fossil specimens were found to date to time rangers long after the animals were thought to be extinct, as recent as 35,000 years ago. Furthermore, the study determined that Elasmotherium sibiricum is not closely related to modern rhinoceroses as was previously thought, but instead split off of the rhino’s evolutionary lineage over 40 million years ago.

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Paleolithic cave art from as far west as France suggests the animals may have roamed a much larger area than previously thought, too.

The new timeline for the Siberian unicorn also sheds some light on the likely cause for its extinction. During the time to which the most recent specimens were dated, a period of colder winters meant there was far less grass for the animals to graze on throughout Eurasia. According to Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, the unicorn’s extreme specialization in eating grass meant that was its main food source died off, the animals likely starved to death:

It looks like this unicorn thing was so specialised to eat grass it couldn't survive. Its head was a whopping great big thing, it was kind of extended really really low, sitting right at grass height, so it really doesn't have to lift its head up. There's question of whether it could even lift its head at all! It was highly specialist so once the environment shifted it appears to have died out.

Yikes. While the Siberian unicorn might have died out tens of thousands of years ago, this new timeline makes you wonder: if these "unicorns" and humans lived side-by-side for thousands of years, is that why unicorns are such a common legendary creature around the world? Depictions of unicorns are fairly ubiquitous worldwide. Like all beasts of lore and legend, the unicorn likely has its roots in the ancient human consciousness.

Brett Tingley
Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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