Long ago, unicorns walked our planet. But it wasn’t exactly the unicorn you’re imagining. Instead of a whimsical, horse-like creature that spreads sparkles and magic, it was a mud-rolling, bulky-bodied beast. Much like a rhino.
In fact, there was an entire genus of these ancient rhinos, called Elasotherium. Elasmotherium comprised 5 chronospecies; each new species was derived from an older species through slow and steady evolution.
Think of it like replacing your old iPhone with a new and improved model. Except, you have to wait over half a million years for the new edition…!
The latest (and largest) “edition” was Elasmotherium sibiricum — existing as late as 39 thousand years ago, as recent evidence suggests. This means, it coexisted with early humans, which appears to be depicted in cave art (shown below).
Some even believe that early sightings of E. sibiricum are responsible for the unicorn myth. And so the nickname “Siberian Unicorn” was born.
E. sibiricum dwelled in the grasslands of Eurasia. Fossil evidence so far shows its range extended northwards through Siberia, and southwards through Ukraine and Moldova.
Much of this region was part of the Mammoth Steppe biome — also home to wooly mammoths, horses, and bison, amongst several other large mammals. The environment was cold and dry, with expansive grasslands that supported the many grazers that relied on it.
Rhinocerotinae and Elasmotherium likely diverged into separate groups around 35 million years ago. Tell-tale evidence indicates that like rhinos, E. sibiricum had a keratinous horn — and it was a girthy one. The trouble with keratin is that it doesn’t preserve well and decomposes with the animal when it dies.
However, when scientists analyzed E. sibiricum skeletal remains, they noticed massive forehead domes and strong spinal structures. While the diameter of the dome demonstrated a wide base for a horn, the creatire’s spinal structure equipped it for carrying heavy weight.
Considering both features, E. sibiricum’s horn was estimated to be about 10 ft long — about 2x lengthier than the longest recorded rhino horn!
In general, this creature was quite large, falling under the classification of “megafauna” for the era. E. sibiricum stood over 8 ft at the shoulder, extending to about 15 ft long. Its robust body probably weighed around 5 tons.
Like rhinos, Elasmotherium had 3 working toes. Although they had much longer legs, so it may have galloped like a horse. Just, much slower — and understandably so. Imagine hauling 5 tons around with you wherever you go! It most likely maxed out at about 20 mph.
One argument that still stands is whether E. sibiricum was covered in wool or bare-skinned. Most depictions of the creature are wooly, though, but it’s hard to say if this is accurate.
A unique feature to the Elasmotherium genus was the presence of euhypsodonty (ever-growing or rootless molars) — no other rhino sports these bad boys. This is more commonly seen amongst rodents, and is an adaptation to keep up with tooth wear from grinding plant matter.
E. sibiricum were herbivorous grazers, and probably consumed grasses as their primary food source. We can assume that they had a similar feeding routine to that of white rhinos. That’s because both have/had downward-facing heads and almost identical tooth wear.
Therefore, like the white rhino, E. sibiricum must have only munched on low-lying vegetation. After all, that’s all it could have reached!
Along with other megafauna, Elasmotherium sibiricum were phased out during the Pleistocene extinction, between about 38,000–41,000 yr B.P.. This era brought on a cooler climate. As a result, many of the grasses and herbs the creature relied on were no longer available as lichens and mosses took over.
At the same time, modern-day humans moved into the area. Back to the cave art depictions, it appears that humans and E. sibiricum interacted. But it’s not likely that human presence was connected to the creature’s extinction; scarcity for food was a more prominent issue.