All of your childhood fantasies are true — a unicorn really did roam the Earth. But it lived in far away Siberia, and it was quite massive and ugly and nothing like the ethereal pictures in story books.
The Siberian unicorn wasn’t discovered recently. In fact, scientists have known about it for years. What they didn’t know was that it lived as recently as 29,000 years ago and possibly crossed paths with humans.
Perhaps that’s where all the fantastical stories started.
The Siberian unicorn has a rather clumsy name: Elasmotherium sibiricum. According to Science Alert, it was quite hairy, more the size of a mammoth than a horse, and looked like a rhino. It stood six-and-a-half feet tall, stretched nearly 15 feet long, and thumped across Siberia carrying a whopping 9,000 pounds, Mother Nature Network added. Its territory ranged across the Don River in Russia to the east of modern Kazakhstan.
Its most impressive feature, however, was its horn. Much longer than a rhino’s, it was several feet long and looked rather sword-like. The horn sat on top of its skull, affixed right in front of its furry ears.
— CA AcademyOfSciences (@calacademy) March 28, 2016
The Siberian unicorn burst onto the fossil record about 2.5 million years ago, and for the longest time, scientists assumed that the Siberian unicorn died off 350,000 years ago. But as often happens in science, evidence that turns that long-standing theory on its head has recently been unearthed.
A skull has turned up in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan that adds another chapter to the tale of the Siberian unicorn. It’s not clear who found it or when, but it came into the possession of researchers at Tomsk State University.
They used radiocarbon dating techniques to pinpoint the skull’s age and found it probably died 29,000 years ago. Of course, given their previous assumptions about when the Siberian unicorn vanished from the fossil record, this finding was a surprise.
The date also places the Siberian unicorn on Earth at the same time as humans. Our ancestors lived in Asia more than 50,000 years ago and traveled to Siberia 15,000 years later. Therefore, it’s not hard to imagine ancient man chomping down on barbecue unicorn shanks.
Based on the skull’s size and condition, they believe the long-dead animal was very old, but they don’t know how he died.
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“Most likely, it was a very large male of very large individual age (teeth not preserved). The dimensions of this rhino are the biggest of those described in the literature, and the proportions are typical,” paleontologist Andrey Shpanski told Phys.org.
And with one answer comes a slew of additional questions.
Many Siberian unicorns died out 350,000 years ago — that fact has not been disproved. But if this one, very old and wise creature carried on for another 320,000 years, and science would like to know why.
They already have some theories, and Shpanski shared some.
“Most likely, the south of Western Siberia was a (refuge), where this rhino persevered the longest in comparison with the rest of its range. There is another possibility that it could migrate and dwell for a while in the more southern areas.”
And the Siberian unicorn may end up helping mankind. If this team in Russia can figure out how it survived the conditions that killed its fellows, maybe they can figure out how we can weather the storm if things get inhospitable in our own environment.
Russia has been the sight of a quite a few fascinating discoveries that have illuminated the ancient world. A pair of lion cubs that lived 10,000 years ago were found last fall, and scientists recently autopsied two puppies dating to the Pleistocene era; both were found in a region called Yakutia.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]