For years, scientists believed that the Siberian unicorn, a prehistoric mammal resembling a rhino more than a horse, had gone extinct around 350,000 years ago. However, a recently discovered perfectly preserved skull in Kazakhstan has upended this theory. The skull has revealed that these incredible creatures were actually roaming the earth as recently as 29,000 years ago.
The unicorn that once walked the earth was nothing like the mythical creature depicted in children’s books. The real animal, Elasmotherium sibiricum, was a massive, shaggy beast that resembled a modern rhino, but carried a single, imposing horn on its forehead. Descriptions indicate that the unicorn stood at around 2 meters tall, 4.5 meters long, and weighed approximately 4 tonnes, making it closer in size to a woolly mammoth than a horse.
Despite its impressive size, the unicorn was likely a grazer, feeding mainly on grass. To get a more accurate picture of this animal, imagine a woolly rhinoceros with a single, long and slender horn protruding from its forehead, rather than a short, stubby horn like modern-day rhinos.
The newly discovered skull, in excellent condition, was found in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan. By using radiocarbon dating techniques, researchers from Tomsk State University were able to determine that the skull dates back to roughly 29,000 years ago. The skull was likely from a very old male, but the cause of its death remains a mystery.
One question on researchers’ minds is how this unicorn species managed to survive so much longer than their counterparts, which died out hundreds of thousands of years earlier. One possibility is that the south of Western Siberia served as a refuge, allowing the rhinos to persist longer than elsewhere. Another theory is that they migrated to more southern areas and lived there for a while.
By understanding how this species managed to survive for so long, and ultimately went extinct, researchers hope to learn more about the environmental factors that played a role in their demise. This knowledge could help us make more informed decisions about the future of our own species, as we face our own environmental challenges.
🔗The results of the study have been published in the American Journal of Applied Science.