Siberian Unicorn DNA Studied For The First Time

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

An artist's interpretation of a Siberian unicorn, which is believed to have lived on the Plains of Eurasia at least 39,000 years ago. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/DMITRY BOGDANOV

The first DNA tests on Siberian unicorns have shown that the 4-ton animal lived at the same time as modern humans, according to scientists. 

By studying fossilized bones, an international team of paleontologists concluded the Elasmotherium sibiricum rhinoceros—widely referred to as the Siberian unicorn—lived much later than previously expected and could have met our ancestors.

The authors of the study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution believe the Siberian unicorn lived in Eastern Europe and Central Asia until at least 39,000 years ago. Previous estimates dated its extinction at around 200,000 years ago, long before the megafaunal extinction around 40,000 years ago. Scientists regard this event as pivotal in natural history, wiping out a range of beasts from the woolly mammoth to the sabre-toothed cat. This was around the time that Neanderthals died away, too.

The enormous beast likely weighed up to 3.5 tons—more than double the modern rhino—and had a large hump on its shoulder. It inhabited the open, grassy plains of Eurasia stretching from southwestern Russian and Ukraine to Kazakhstan and Siberia, living on grass.  And despite its weight, it is believed to have been able to run at speed, according to the Natural History Museum, where study co-author Professor Adrian Lister is a researcher.

Lister explained: “This megafaunal extinction event didn't really get going until about 40,000 years ago. So Elasmotherium with its apparent extinction date of 100,000 years ago 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.”

Thanks to leaps forward in technology, the researchers were able to date fossils more accurately and took DNA from an Elasmotherium sibiricum fossil for the first time ever. In total, 23 specimens were assessed by teams in the U.K., the Netherlands and Russia.

“They [the individual experiments] very strongly all confirmed that this species survived until at least 39,000 years ago, and maybe as late as 35,000 years ago,” said Lister.

As for the rhino’s personality, researchers are still unsure.

Lister explained: “Modern rhinos tend to be rather solitary and spread out in their habitat. Combined with Elasmotherium's restricted geographical range, it might have been quite a rare animal.”

So why aren’t Siberian unicorns still roaming the Eurasian plains? Scientists believe massive changes in the climate at the time likely killed off the animal. This wasn’t helped by its scarcity and grazing lifestyle.

The Siberian unicorn would have been one of 250 species of rhino alive at the time. Today, there are just five.

The research follows a study suggesting male mammoths were more prone to wandering off on their own and dying than the females of the species. 

The article published in the journal Current Biology last year came about after scientists noticed there were more male remains than females among those they were studying. 

Study author and paleontologist Professor Love Dalen of the Swedish Museum of Natural History told Newsweek at the time: "Fairly early, when we started looking at this and doing the samples we had, we realized it was way more males that were killed then we were expecting." 

"It seemed very odd that there were so many males. But then we started thinking about it a bit more carefully I guess and it started to make more sense."