Siberian ‘Unicorn’ may have walked the earth alongside humans: Study

We typically think of unicorns as creatures of pure fantasy. In reality, though, they did exist on earth. These unicorns did not resemble the elegant creatures from fairy tales, and they lived an incredibly long time ago.

Researchers have recently learned, however, that these ancient unicorns may not be as old as they originally thought. In fact, it is likely that unicorns and early humans walked the earth at the same time. The Siberian Unicorn The Siberian Unicorn, also known as Elasmotherium sibiricum, didn’t look anything like the unicorn you picture in your head. In fact, it likely looked more like a furry rhino with a large horn on its head [1].

Originally, researchers thought that the Siberian Unicorn went extinct 350 thousand years ago. A more recent discovery of a well-preserved skull in Kazakhstan, however, has caused them to adjust that number. Today, scientists believe that these unique animals were still living only 29 thousand years ago. This means that they would have existed at the same time as early humans. Paleontologist Andrey Shpanski of Tomsk State University (TSU) said that this particular skull likely came from a very large male. “The dimensions of this rhino today are the biggest of those described in the literature.” [2].

Researchers believe that Siberian Rhinos were likely vegetarians and that they could have weighed up to four tonnes. They also stood, on average, approximately two meters tall and were nearly five meters long. Adrian Lister is a researcher with the Earth Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum in the U.K. He describes the rhino as more like a giant rodent. He says this primarily because of the animal’s teeth, which are profoundly different from any other rhino. They are much more rodent-like, which is why scientists believe they probably ate a vegetarian diet [3]. How do you date something this old? So how did the researchers know that their original guess for the unicorn rhino’s age was wrong? First, they had to find bone samples that still contained enough collagen to be useful. Luckily, 23 out of their 25 bone samples fit the bill. They then analyzed these bones using radiocarbon dating.

Radiocarbon dating can determine a specimen’s age based on the amount of carbon-14 it holds. Carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope. It forms naturally in green plants, as well as plant-eating animals. Once that animal dies, the carbon-14 starts to decay. Because it decays at a steady rate, scientists can look at the amount of c-14 left in bones and estimate how long ago the animal died. The researchers determined that these animals were alive 39 thousand years ago in Europe and Asia. This means, then, that they were walking the earth alongside humans and Neanderthals. The team hypothesized that the effects of climate change during that time period were likely what eventually pushed them into extinction [3].

But… Were They Really Unicorns? Interestingly enough, there isn’t actually any definitive evidence that these creatures actually had horns. Reconstructions of the animal always feature a prominent horn, but there is no real fossil evidence to support it. “We have no horn preserved, or even part of one, because they were made of compressed hair and have decayed,” Lister explained [3]. The only evidence they have of a horn is a huge bony mass on the top of its head. This is highly indicative that a horn was at one time present. Considering the size of the mass, researchers believe that the horn was probably massive. For now, however, the best they can do is make an educated guess.