According to a recent study dating the 23 available fragments of the bones of the giant, extinct rhinoceros, Elasmotherium sibericum (3.4 tonnes):
The results were surprising: they were dated to a range of times after the animals were thought to be extinct, with the most recent being between 35,000 to 36,000 years ago. By this time, humans had started populating the steppe of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Northern China.
But the researchers don’t think humans wiped them out:
“If we look at timing, it’s during a period of climate change, which wasn’t extreme, but it did cause a whole bunch of much colder winters that we think really altered the extent of the grassland in the area,” Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide explained to ScienceAlert.
We don’t know how big the animal’s horn grew, since no horn has ever been found. However, the part of the skull where the horn would have grown has been recovered, with an absolutely massive base. Based on comparisons with living horned animals, the Siberian unicorn’s horn could have been up to 1 metre (3.3 feet) in length. Michelle Starr, “DNA of The Mysterious ‘Siberian Unicorn’ Has Been Analysed For The First Time” at Science Alert
Abstract: Understanding extinction events requires an unbiased record of the chronology and ecology of victims and survivors. The rhinoceros Elasmotherium sibiricum, known as the ‘Siberian unicorn’, was believed to have gone extinct around 200,000 years ago—well before the late Quaternary megafaunal extinction event. However, no absolute dating, genetic analysis or quantitative ecological assessment of this species has been undertaken. Here, we show, by accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating of 23 individuals, including cross-validation by compound-specific analysis, that E. sibiricum survived in Eastern Europe and Central Asia until at least 39,000 years ago, corroborating a wave of megafaunal turnover before the Last Glacial Maximum in Eurasia, in addition to the better-known late-glacial event. Stable isotope data indicate a dry steppe niche for E. sibiricum and, together with morphology, a highly specialized diet that probably contributed to its extinction. We further demonstrate, with DNA sequencing data, a very deep phylogenetic split between the subfamilies Elasmotheriinae and Rhinocerotinae that includes all the living rhinoceroses, settling a debate based on fossil evidence and confirming that the two lineages had diverged by the Eocene. As the last surviving member of the Elasmotheriinae, the demise of the ‘Siberian unicorn’ marked the extinction of this subfamily.Abstract: (paywall) Evolution and extinction of the giant rhinoceros Elasmotherium sibiricum sheds light on late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions
Pavel Kosintsev, Kieren J. Mitchell, Thibaut Devièse, Johannes van der Plicht, Margot Kuitems, Ekaterina Petrova, Alexei Tikhonov, Thomas Higham, Daniel Comeskey, Chris Turney, Alan Cooper, Thijs van Kolfschoten, Anthony J. Stuart & Adrian M. Lister
Nature Ecology & Evolution (2018) More.
It would be interesting to know whether tales of this beast, handed down for millennia, resulted in the legend of the unicorn. True, the mythical unicorn was dainty by comparison but there was no hope of the giant Siberian rhino surviving to correct the picture. It’s also interesting that the more we know about extinct megafauna, the less likely researchers are to say humans must have done them in.
Note: Reader Ilion Troas writes to add: The word ‘unicorn’ is the Latin for ‘monoceros’, which was the Greek for ‘rhinoceros’
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See also: Humans “off the hook” for ancient African mammal extinction?