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Siberian Unicorn Walked Earth Alongside Humans

Unicorns are real (though not as colorful as we like to imagine), and they lived at the same time as modern humans.

Ancient rhino species Elasmotherium sibiricum, known as the Siberian unicorn, was long thought to have some 200,000 to 100,000 years ago.

Improved fossil dating, however, now suggests it survived until at least 39,000 years ago, likely sharing Eurasia with modern humans and neanderthals.

At any given moment in history, there were as many as 250 different rhinoceros species roaming the Earth. Perhaps most impressive among them: Elasmotherium sibiricum.

Weighing nearly 4 tons, it lived on the Eurasian grasslands, ranging from what is now southwestern Russia and Ukraine to Kazakhstan and Siberia.

These so-called unicorns (named after the big single horn it may have once sported) eventually went extinct, the possible circumstances of which have only recently come into focus.

"We dated a few specimens … and to our surprise they came in less than 40,000 years old," Adrian Lister, a Merit researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, said in a statement.

While no horn has ever been found, it is thought that the big bone on the head supported one (via Igor Doronin / Kosintsev et al.)

In partnership with researchers from the Netherlands and Russia, Lister & Co. end up with 23 dated fossils, all of which "very strongly" confirmed these species survived until at least 39,000 years ago.

"Maybe as late as 35,000 years ago," Lister added.

Their results were published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

A true ice age giant, E. sibiricum weighed up to two as much as a modern rhino. The distant relatives, however, share at least one thing in common: vegetarianism.

According to Lister, the Siberian unicorn's anatomy-especially its "unusual teeth" – suggests it lived in open plains, grazing almost entirely on tough, dry grasses.

Based on living horn-nosed mammals and Elasmotherium'S restricted geographic range, researchers believe "it might have been a rare animal."

This natural scarcity, the Museum said, coupled with dramatic fluctuations in the climate, may have been one of the factors that pushed it into the extinction-around the same time Neanderthals died out.

It's unlikely, however, they were hunted into the extinction.

"There is no evidence at all that people had anything to do with it," Lister said. "You can not rule it out, but we do not have any archaeological association of people in any way at all sites known so far.

"The environment where the animal was living seems to have changed quite significantly around the same time it went extinct," he continued. "So it is quite plausible that if it was a rare animal to start with it would have been a relatively high risk of extinction."

Scientists in Australia have, for the first time, the extracted DNA from E sibiricum, helping to clarify where the Siberian unicorn and other members of the Elastrotherium genus fit on the rhinoceros evolutionary tree.

It turns out the ancient group split from the modern sect roughly 43 million years ago, making the Siberian unicorn the last of a highly distinctive and ancient lineage.

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