Giant Siberian Rhinoceros Lived alongside Early Modern Humans

Thursday, November 29, 2018

An artist’s impression of Elasmotherium sp. Image credit: W. S. Van der Merwe,

For a long time it was believed that a giant rhinoceros called Elasmotherium sibericum went extinct around 200,000years ago — well before the Quaternary megafaunal extinction event, which saw the end of the woolly mammoth, Irish elk and saber-toothed cat. Now improved dating of fossils suggests that the species survived in Eastern Europe and Central Asia until at least 39,000 years ago, overlapping in time with the existence of early modern humans.

Today there are just five surviving rhinoceros species, although in the past there have been as many as 250 species at different times.

Weighing up to 3.5 tons, Elasmotherium sibericum — also known as the ‘Siberian unicorn’, due to its extraordinary single horn — was undoubtedly one of the most impressive.

It has long been assumed that this ancient creature went extinct well before the Ice Age. However, a new study challenges the date of this species’ demise.

“This megafaunal extinction event didn’t really get going until about 40,000 years ago,” said study senior author Professor Adrian Lister, a researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum, London, UK.

“So Elasmotherium sibericum 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 and to our surprise they came in at less than 40,000 years old.”

The radiocarbon dating results show that Elasmotherium sibericum survived until at least 39,000 years ago, and possibly as late as 35,000 years ago.

Further study revealed more about the giant rhinoceros’ biology and possible behavior.

Professor Lister and co-authors studied the stable isotope ratios in the species’ teeth, which involved looking at the levels of different carbon and nitrogen isotopes and then comparing them to different plants, allowing them to determine what the animals were eating.

The results confirm that Elasmotherium sibericum was most likely grazing on tough, dry grasses.

Elasmotherium sibericum’s final days were shared with early modern humans and Neanderthals,” the researchers said.

“It is, however, unlikely that the presence of humans was the cause of extinction. Instead it is more probable that dramatic fluctuations in climate during this time period, coupled with the specialized grazing lifestyle and the rhinos’ naturally low population numbers pushed the species to the edge.”

The researchers were also able to extract DNA from some of the fossil. This helped to settle a debate about where Elasmotherium sibericum, along with all other members of the genus Elasmotherium, fit on the rhino evolutionary tree.

“The ancient group split from the modern group of rhinos roughly 43 million years ago making Elasmotherium sibericum the last species of a highly distinctive and ancient linage,” the study authors said.

The research appears in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.


Pavel Kosintsev et al. Evolution and extinction of the giant rhinoceros Elasmotherium sibiricum sheds light on late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions. Nature Ecology & Evolution, published online November 26, 2018; doi: 10.1038/s41559-018-0722-0