Unicorns are real, or at least they were real.
The plains of southern Russia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe were once home to Elasmotherium sibiricum, an ancient rhino species also known as the "Siberian unicorn,” for understandable reasons.
It was long assumed that this beast went extinct between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. However, new research has suggested that it might have stomped the Earth until at least 39,000 years ago, meaning modern humans could have come into contact with it.
As reported in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, scientists at the Natural History Museum in London have recently carried out new mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating on the remains of 23 Siberian unicorns. Their findings suggest that E. sibiricum survived in Eastern Europe and Central Asia until at least 39,000 years ago, perhaps even as late as 35,000 years ago.
Considering that humans strolled up to Central Asia and Siberia approximately 40,000 years ago, it's perfectly plausible that anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals once saw these 3.5-tonne juggernauts in the flesh.
“This megafaunal extinction event didn't really get going until about 40,000 years ago,” Professor Adrian Lister, Merit Researcher at the Natural History Museum, said in a statement. “So Elasmotherium with its apparent extinction date of 100,000 years ago or more has not been considered as part of that same event.”
“We dated a few specimens – such as the beautiful complete skull we have at the Museum – and to our surprise they came in at less than 40,000 years old,” they added.
A root around their DNA – the first time such a feat has been pulled off on E. sibiricum – also found that the ancient Elastrotherium genus split from the modern group of rhinos roughly 43 million years ago, meaning the Siberian unicorn was the last species of its ancient lineage.
Their study also highlights some other insights into the life of E. sibiricum and perhaps some clues about what drove it into extinction. By looking at the stable isotope ratios found in the teeth and comparing the carbon and nitrogen isotopes to those found in the plants of Siberia, they were able to work out what kinds of food the Siberian unicorn ate. As expected, the diet was most likely a highly specialized (and painfully dull) feast of tough, dry grasses.
Perhaps surprisingly, it appears that humans are not to blame for the extinction of E. sibiricum. Instead, they believe that its specialized grazing lifestyle and low population numbers meant big climate fluctuations hit them hard. Despite its imposing appearance, this beast was possibly another victim of the last Ice Age.