5 shocking facts about Siberia's unicorn

Restoration by Heinrich Harder from ca. 1920.

Restoration by Heinrich Harder from ca. 1920.

Unicorns once lived in Siberia. Instead of looking like those lovely creatures in fairy tales, they in fact resembled shaggy rhinoceroses. RBTH has the scoop on these mysterious pre-historic animals.

Over the past few weeks, the global media has been actively discussing the so-called ``Siberian unicorn.'' These creatures lived on Earth not 350,000 years ago as scientists previously thought, but only 29,000 years ago. The mysterious folk tale character could easily have lived among Homo sapiens. Russian scientists from Tomsk State University made this discovery with the help of radiocarbon dating.

The "unicorns" looked more like woolly rhinoceroses than purebred horses. What else about these ancient creatures might surprise us? Here are five peculiar facts.

First published restoration (1878) of E. sibiricum, by Rashevsky, under supervision of A.F. Brant. Source: Wikipedia.org

They had a peculiar diet. Despite the unicorn's huge size (an adult was up to five or six meters in length, and weighed more than five tons), its diet consisted mainly of tubers and plant bulbs. The creature could burrow into the ground and pull out edible roots. It had no incisors and canines, so it dug with hard horny lips. Scientists speculate how this species survived longer than cave lions or mammoths. Perhaps its diet played a role.

Siberia was warm. Remains of the animal were found in the south part of the West Siberian Plain, which is odd because they were regarded as warmth-loving animals. Previously, it was thought that they did not inhabit this area at all because it was too cold This indicates, however, that the climate in the Urals and south Siberia was not as cold as once thought. 

Pre-historic humans probably saw them. The animals depicted in cave paintings were not just a figment of our ancestors' imagination, and it is possible that human hunters caused their extinction because ancient unicorns persisted through four or five ice ages. The reason for their disappearance remains a mystery, and it is unlikely that a glacial advance led to their extinction. Previously, scientists hypothesized that unicorns were gradually superseded by mammoths.

The mysterious creature's horn, like the rest of its appearance, has nothing to do with the fairy tale character. The Siberian unicorn had a small domed bone elevation on its forehead of about 35 centimeters in length and about 15 centimeters in height. This was very strong and served as the base for a powerful horn.

Paleolithic art from Rouffignac Cave, France, judged on the basis of the single horn to depict Elasmotherium by Schaurte in 1964 and again independently by N. Spassov in 2001. Source: Wikipedia.org

There was an olfactory organ inside the "dome," so the creature had a keen sense of smell. Unlike the one-horned Indian rhinoceros, this creature's horn was on the forehead, not on the nose. Scientists estimate the length of the horn differently. According to some, it could be up to one or two meters.

Perhaps in addition to the main horn the animal had another. Since the 19th century, scientists have tried to restore the Siberian unicorn's appearance. For instance, zoology professor Alexander Brandt paid attention to the small roughness on the front end of the creature's nasal bones, suggesting the presence of a second horn.

It was a low horn plate located at the tip of the animal's muzzle. However, none of the ancient creatures' horns have been found. After all, horns are formed from keratin, like our hair and nails, and are almost never preserved. Paleontologists speculate on the presence of horns only by the structure of the animal's skull.

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