When Unicorns Lived Among Humans – New Australian Research

A giant rhino that may have been the origin of the unicorn myth survived until at least 39,000 years ago - much longer than previously thought.

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According to new research from Australian scientists, “unicorns” lived alongside humans and were only wiped out by climate change.

The giant, shaggy Ice Age rhinoceros (Elasmotherium sibiricum), also known as the Siberian unicorn due to its unusually large single horn, was thought to have gone extinct 200,000 years ago.

An international team of researchers from Adelaide and Sydney, as well as London, the Netherlands, and Russia, has debunked that theory.

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Researchers claim that the Siberian unicorn went extinct only 36,000 years ago in a study paper published Tuesday morning in the scientific journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The study discovered that climate change, rather than human impact, was the most likely cause of the species’ extinction.

The Siberian unicorn, which could weigh up to 3.5 tonnes and had a single massive horn, roamed the steppes of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Northern China.

Skeleton of the rhino at the Stavropol Museum

The Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide examined the DNA of the Siberian unicorn for the first time and discovered the giant animal was the last surviving member of a unique rhino family.

“The Siberian unicorn’s ancestors split from the ancestors of all living rhinos over 40 million years ago,” said co-author and ACAD researcher Dr Kieren Mitchell.

“As a result, the Siberian unicorn and African white rhino are even more distant cousins than humans are to monkeys.”

Previous research had suggested that the Siberian unicorn was a close relative of the extinct woolly rhino and the living Sumatran rhino.

A 1903 reconstruction of the Siberian Elasmotherium by W. Kobelt gave the animal a thick coat of shaggy hair.

The researchers also dated 23 Siberian unicorn bone specimens, confirming that the species lived until at least 39,000 years ago, and possibly until 35,000 years ago. The last days of the Siberian unicorn were shared by early modern humans and Neanderthals.

“It is unlikely that the presence of humans caused extinction,” said Professor Chris Turney of the University of New South Wales.

“The Siberian unicorn appears to have been severely impacted by the start of the ice age in Eurasia, when a precipitous drop in temperature resulted in an increase in the amount of frozen ground, reducing the tough, dry grasses it lived on and impacting populations across a vast region.”

Other species that shared the Siberian unicorn’s habitat were either less reliant on grass – like the woolly rhino – or more adaptable in their diet – like the saiga antelope – and avoided the Siberian unicorn’s extinction, though the woolly rhino eventually became extinct 20,000 years later.

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