Humans have seen real-life unicorns. That's the conclusion of the United Kingdom's National History Museum in London, which determined that the Elasmotherium sibiricum, a species known as the "Siberian unicorn," co-existed with humans. The catch? Forget all unicorn preconceptions. Instead of an elegant horse, think of a hairy rhino with an extraordinary horn.
The NHM's study showed that the Elasmotherium survived for far longer than scientists had previously believed. It was general consensus that the magnificent animal, which weighed up to 3.5 tonnes (7,716 pounds) went extinct 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. However, new radiocarbon dating shows that Elasmotherium was made up of much heartier stuff, allowing for its survival. Scientists now believe that the species survived until at least 39,000 years ago, possibly as late as 35,000 years ago.
In a certain way, these places Elasmotherium comfortably within history. The new lifespan shows that it existed alongside what were known as Pleistocene megafauna, the gigantic animals that emerged after the dinosaurs. These included wooly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and a wide variety of magnificent creatures who roamed the planet alongside the men after a great extinction event possible related to natural climate change.
"This megafaunal extinction event did not really get going until about 40,000 years ago," Adrian Lister, Merit Researcher at the NHM, said in a press 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 of the specimens – we have at least 40,000 years old," meaning the species shared its final days with early human hunter-gatherers.
Further study showed that the unicorn rhino shared some similarities with its modern relatives. Examining the Elasmotherium's teeth, scientists were able to compare the carbon and nitrogen isotopes there with a variety of plant species. Finding a match, they were able to confirm that the Siberian beast grazed on tough, dry grasses–just like rhinos.
In a rarity, researchers say that the rise of humans likely did not lead to the rhino's extinction. Rather, the rhino's special grazing diet was a possible source of climate change.
While rhinos are rare creatures today, that was not always the case. Throughout natural history there have been as many as 250 species of rhinoceros. These days, animal extinctions are happening at such a rate that nature can not keep up, leading to a crisis in biological diversity.