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‘Siberian Unicorns’ Walked the Earth Alongside Modern Humans

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A reconstruction of what a Siberian unicorn might look like, by Heinrich Harder in 1908

Weighing up to 7,700 pounds, Elasmotherium sibiricum—an extinct hairy rhino popularly known as the “Siberian unicorn”—was thought to have disappeared as long as 200,000 years ago.

An updated fossil analysis suggests this formidable species was still around some 39,000 years ago, and that Ice Age conditions, not human hunters, contributed to its demise.

Paleontologists know of around 250 rhino species, of which only five still exist today. Among the most spectacular of these rhinos was Elasmotherium sibiricum—the Siberian unicorn.

For the Neanderthals and modern humans who lived alongside and possibly hunted this massive creature in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it must’ve been an impressive and deeply intimidating sight.

Fossil evidence suggests Elasmotherium weighed over 3.5 tons, was covered in a thick coat of hair, and sported a horn of biblical portions, possibly as long as three feet (1 meter) in length.

Impressive though it may have been, the Siberian unicorns eventually died out. Previous fossil dating suggested an expiry date at some point between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, long before the large-scale late Quaternary megafaunal extinction, which got rolling around 40,000 years ago.




New research published this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution is now offering a more reliable estimate, dating the demise of Elasmotherium at some point between 39,000 and 35,000 years ago.

The extinction of the Siberian unicorns, therefore, can now be connected to the late Quaternary megafaunal extinction, an event that witnessed the end of the wooly mammoth, Irish elk, and saber-toothed cat.

Siberian unicorns lived alongside anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals. That ancient hominids may have preyed upon these oversized rhinos is not as outrageous a proposition as it may seem.

Early humans, likely a form of Homo erectus, were hunting rhinos in the Philippines around 700,000 years ago.

First published restoration of Elasmotherium sibiricum

But while rhinos were on the hominid menu, this new research suggests climate change, and not hunters, was responsible for Elasmotherium’s demise.

These rhinos, as we now know from the new research, lived during the Ice Age just prior to the Last Glacial Maximum—the stage at which the ice sheets covered their largest area, around 26,500 years ago.

Earth was prone to dramatic climate shifts during this period, producing drought, desertification, a drop in sea levels, and the steady encroachment of glaciers.

These climactic disruptions proved fatal to many species, Elasmotherium among them.

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