Researchers Find Siberian ‘Unicorn’ Fossil Fragments in Kazakhstan, Say Creature Lived Much Longer Than Thought

Researchers Find Siberian ‘Unicorn’ Fossil Fragments in Kazakhstan, Say Creature Lived Much Longer Than Thought

By Epoch Newsroom / The Epoch Times

Researchers have found fossil fragments that indicate the so-called Siberian Unicorn last walked the Earth a mere 29,000 years ago.

The updated timeline is a huge jump since scientists thought the creature died out around 350,000 years ago.

About 20 fossilized mammal teeth and bones were found in Kazakhstan.

Side view of skull and reconstructed horn of a Siberian ‘Unicorn’ ( public domain )

Siberian Unicorns did have a horn on their heads. The actual creature’s head, though, stood between the horse and rhinoceros families, according to early descriptions of the animal published in the journal Nature in 1878.

First published restoration of Elasmotherium sibiricum, by Rashevsky under supervision of A.F. Brant.

The noses of the creatures were much narrower than that of the rhinoceros, though, while the eyes were larger. The creatures likely had a shaggy coat of hair.

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Artist’s impression of an Elasmotherium sibiricum

The newly discovered skull fragments have left researchers convinced that some members of the species survived for hundreds of thousands of years longer than previously thought. Radiocarbon dating shows the age of the fragments, the researchers said in a report published in the American Journal of Applied Sciences.

The skull fragments–about 20 fossilized mammal teeth and bones–were found in Kazakhstan.

Pair of E. sibiricum (the Siberian ‘unicorn’).

Featured image: Heinrich Harder's painting of the so-called Siberian Unicorn.

The article ‘ Researchers Find Siberian Unicorn Fossil Fragments in Kazakhstan, Say Creature Lived Much Longer Than Thought ’ by The Epoch Times Newsroom was originally appeared on The Epoch Times and has been republished with permission.


    Siberian ‘unicorns’ extinct much later than believed

    Giant prehistoric ‘unicorns’ once wandered over the prairies of Central Asia. New research has shown that these so-called Siberian unicorns lived much longer than was believed, and probably did not become extinct until ‘just’ 39,000 years ago.

    A horn as long as a grown man, the weight of five dairy cows, and a hump that would have made Quasimodo envious: the Siberian unicorn was an awe-inspiring beast. In prehistoric times, this rhinoceros-like animal wandered the prairies of Central Asia, in the region between present-day Ukraine and China. That is, until is suddenly became extinct.

    Much later extinct

    New research has shown that this occurred much later than had been believed for a long time. An international team of researchers from Leiden, Groningen, Russia, Great Britain and Australia discovered that this animal was still walking the earth until 39,000 years ago. They reached this conclusion based on carbon dating and examination of the remains of 25 such unicorns. Until recently, it was assumed that the Siberian unicorn had died out 260,000 years earlier. This new dating makes it highly probable that modern man saw the powerful Siberian unicorn.

    Climate fluctuations

    ‘This new research dates the extinction of the Siberian unicorn to exactly the same time as that of many other large mammals,’ says Thijs van Kolfschoten, emeritus professor of Archaeology at Leiden University.

    ‘Around 40,000 years ago the earth underwent serious fluctuations in the climate, which also brought about continuous changes in vegetation. Many large herbivores were unable to adapt to a different diet. That’s probably what happened to the unicorn.’

    This hypothesis is also supported by the research carried out by Leiden PhD researcher Margot Kuitems. Using isotope research, she discovered that the unicorns had very high and stable ratios of nitrogen isotopes in their bones and teeth. This may indicate that their diet consisted mainly of plants that grow under the ground, such as turnips. This could explain why the teeth of Siberian unicorns continued to grow: feeding on turnips meant that they also ingested a lot of sand, which probably wore the teeth down very quickly.

    Related to modern rhinoceros

    The researchers also discovered using DNA research that the Siberian unicorn split off at an early stage from the rhino species that are still present on earth today. The Elasmotheriinae and Rhinocerotinae sub-species developed from the Eocene period – between 56 and 34 million years ago – along two separate branches. The extinction of the Siberian unicorn meant the disappearance of the very last representative of the Elasmotheriinaesub-family on earth.


    The unicorn first emerged nearly 2.5 million years ago but is believed to have disappeared 350,000 years ago.

    However, researchers from Tomsk State University in Siberia, Russia, now believe that Elasmotherium Sibiricum may have been around till as recently as 29,000 years ago.

    “Most likely, it was a very large male of very large individual age. The dimensions of this rhino are the biggest of those described in the literature, and the proportions are typical,” said Andrey Shpanski, a paleontologist at Tomsk State University.

    A 1903 reconstruction of the Siberian Elasmotherium by W. Kobelt gave the animal a thick coat of shaggy hair.

    The researchers are still trying to find out how the unicorn survived longer than other species that became extinct hundreds of thousands of years earlier.

    According to early descriptions, the Siberian unicorn stood at roughly 2 metres (6.6 feet) tall, was 4.5 metres (14.7 feet) long, and weighed about 4 tonnes.

    That’s closer to woolly mammoth-sized than horse-sized. Despite its very impressive stature, the unicorn probably was a grazer that ate mostly grass.

    So, if you want a correct image in your head, think of a fuzzy rhinoceros with one long, slender horn protruding from its face instead of a short, stubby one like today’s rhinos.

    The skull, which was remarkably well-preserved, was found in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan. Researchers from Tomsk State University were able to date it to around 29,000 years ago via radiocarbon dating techniques.

    Skeleton of the rhino at the Stavropol Museum

    Based on the size and condition of the skull, it was likely a very old male, they suggest, but how it actually died remains unknown.

    The question on researchers’ minds is how this unicorn lasted so much longer than those that died out hundreds of thousands of years earlier.

    “Most likely, the south of Western Siberia was a refúgium, where this rhino persevered the longest in comparison with the rest of its range,” said one of the team, Andrey Shpanski.

    “There is another possibility that it could migrate and dwell for a while in the more southern areas.”

    The team hopes that the find will help them better understand how environmental factors played a role in the creature’s extinction, since it seems like some may have lasted a lot longer than previously thought by migrating across great distances.

    Knowing how the species survived for so long, and potentially what wiped it out in the end, could allow us to make more informed choices about the future of our own species, as we find ourselves in a rather perilous situation.


    What do we know about the ancient rhino?

    The rhino, Elasmotherium sibericum, was thought to have become extinct between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago.

    By radiocarbon-dating a total of 23 specimens, researchers found the Ice Age giant in fact survived in Eastern Europe and Central Asia until at least 39,000 years ago.

    They also isolated DNA from the ancient rhino for the first time, showing it split from the modern group of rhinos about 40 million years ago.

    The extinction of the Siberian unicorn marks the end point of an entire group of rhinos.


    'Siberian unicorn' lived longer than we thought

    Tuesday, March 29, 2016, 11:39 AM - A prehistoric beast dubbed the 'Siberian unicorn' may have walked the Earth much longer than previously estimated.

    The horned creature, properly called Elasmotherium sibiricum, was originally thought to have died out around 350,000 years ago. But a recent paper published in the American Journal of Applied Science suggests they may have lasted much longer, surviving to at least 29,000 years ago.

    That's based on the discovery of a skull near Kozhamzhar in northeastern Kazakhstan, not far from the boundary with western Siberia.

    Image: Heinrich Harder/Wikimedia Commons

    "Most likely, it was a very large male of very large individual age (teeth not preserved)," Andrey Shpanski, the study's lead author and a paleontologist at Russia's Tomsk State University, told Phys.org. "The dimensions of this rhino are the biggest of those described in the literature, and the proportions are typical."

    You'll notice Shpanski refers to the creature as a "rhino", rather than the more fanciful "unicorn" monicker given to it in most media coverage. That's because, contrary to the fanciful 19th Century depiction above, real-life Elasmotherium really was very similar to a rhinoceros, based on the fossil record and sheer size of the horns that have been found so far. As such, modern artists depict it less daintily:

    Image: Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikimedia Commons

    As for why this particular specimen apparently lasted well beyond the previously accepted date range of the species' existence, Shpanski says western Siberia may have served as a refuge where the animals lasted longest, in comparison to the rest of the rhinos' range.

    "There is another possibility that it could migrate and dwell for a while in the more southern areas," Shpanski, he told Phys.org.

    In their paper, Shpanski and his colleagues call for more radiocarbon dating of prehistoric remains that were believed to have been extinct 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.

    "Our research makes adjustments in the understanding of the environmental conditions in the geologic time in general," he says. "Understanding of the past allows us to make more accurate predictions about natural processes in the near future—it also concerns climate change."

    That be may be a good a point. Mammoths, for example, were previously thought to have died out 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. However, researchers in the 1990s tested mammoth remains found on Wrangel Island, north of Russia in the Arctic Ocean, and found some dating back around 1,750 B.C.E.

    At around that time, Babylon was on the rise, ancient Egypt was in full flower and the first Chinese dynasties were stepping from myth into history.

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    Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, two giants of 20 th century science, espoused very different worldviews.

    To Einstein, the world was ultimately rational. Things had to make sense. They should be quantifiable and expressible through a logical chain of cause-and-effect interactions, from what we experience in our everyday lives all the way to the depths of reality. To Bohr, we had no right to expect any such order or rationality. Nature, at its deepest level, need not follow any of our expectations of well-behaved determinism. Things could be weird and non-deterministic, so long as they became more like what we expect when we traveled from the world of atoms to our world of trees, frogs, and cars. Bohr divided the world into two realms, the familiar classical world, and the unfamiliar quantum world. They should be complementary to one another but with very different properties.

    The two scientists spent decades arguing about the impact of quantum physics on the nature of reality. Each had groups of physicists as followers, all of them giants of their own. Einstein's group of quantum weirdness deniers included quantum physics pioneers Max Planck, Louis de Broglie, and Erwin Schrödinger, while Bohr's group had Werner Heisenberg (of uncertainty principle fame), Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, and Paul Dirac.

    Almost a century afterward, the debate rages on.


    Dating a 'unicorn'

    The researchers looked at 25 bone samples and found 23 that still held enough collagen to be analyzed using radiocarbon dating — a method that determines a specimen's age based on the amount of carbon-14 it holds. Carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope that forms naturally in green plants and in plant-eating animals. After one of those organisms dies, the carbon-14 it contained decays at a steady rate. By examining this isotope in bones, for example, and seeing how much carbon-14 is left, scientists can estimate how long ago the organism was alive.

    Based on the radiocarbon data, the study authors concluded that the ancient rhinos were still around 39,000 years ago, placing them in Europe and Asia at the same time as humans and Neanderthals. This new time frame also means that E. sibiricum experienced the dramatic climate shifts that took place during that period. Since these grazing animals were adapted to a highly specialized lifestyle, effects brought about by a changing climate could have eventually nudged them into extinction, according to the study. [Image Gallery: 25 Amazing Ancient Beasts]

    But while these findings significantly clarify when E. sibiricum was alive, it's still unclear when the rhino lineage finally went extinct, Ross MacPhee, a curator with the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, told Live Science.

    MacPhee, who was not involved in the study, said that the scarcity of Elasmotherium fossils makes it difficult to say for sure when the species appeared and when it vanished.

    "Rhino fossils are comparatively rare — they're not at all like wooly mammoths or bison in Siberia — and the fewer specimens you have, the less certain you can be. You don't really know where you are, with respect to the 'life cycle' of the species," MacPhee said.

    In other words, Elasmotherium populations may have survived to even more recently than 39,000 years ago, but their remains were either entirely destroyed or have yet to be discovered.

    Nevertheless, the study presents "good evidence" that the rhino was extinct by the last glacial maximum — when ice sheet coverage was at its peak — about 20,000 to 25,000 years ago, he added.

    In 2016, another research group analyzed a partial skull of E. sibiricum, concluding that the bones were 29,000 years old, Live Science previously reported. But the amount of collagen the researchers extracted from the bone was so small that their results may have been contaminated by other materials in the fossils, and therefore may not represent the fossils' true age, MacPhee said.


    A Fossilised Skull Has Revealed When The Last 'Siberian Unicorn' Lived on Earth

    For decades, scientists have estimated that the Siberian unicorn - a long-extinct species of mammal that looked more like a rhino than a horse - died out some 350,000 years ago.

    But a beautifully preserved skull found in Kazakhstan in 2016 has completely overturned that assumption. Turns out, these incredible creatures were still around as recently as 29,000 years ago.

    Yes, that means there was a very real 'unicorn' that roamed Earth tens of thousands of years ago, but it was nothing like the one found in your favourite children's book. (Sorry - it's a bummer for us, too.)

    The real unicorn, Elasmotherium sibiricum, was shaggy and huge and looked just like a modern rhino, only it carried the most almighty horn on its forehead.

    According to early descriptions, the Siberian unicorn stood at roughly 2 metres (6.6 feet) tall, was 4.5 metres (14.7 feet) long, and weighed about 4 tonnes.

    That's closer to woolly mammoth-sized than horse-sized. Despite its very impressive stature, the unicorn probably was a grazer that ate mostly grass.

    So, if you want a correct image in your head, think of a fuzzy rhinoceros with one long, slender horn protruding from its face instead of a short, stubby one like today's rhinos.

    The skull, which was remarkably well-preserved, was found in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan. Researchers from Tomsk State University were able to date it to around 29,000 years ago via radiocarbon dating techniques.

    Based on the size and condition of the skull, it was likely a very old male, they suggest, but how it actually died remains unknown.

    The question on researchers' minds is how this unicorn lasted so much longer than those that died out hundreds of thousands of years earlier.

    "Most likely, the south of Western Siberia was a refúgium, where this rhino persevered the longest in comparison with the rest of its range," said one of the team, Andrey Shpanski.

    "There is another possibility that it could migrate and dwell for a while in the more southern areas."

    The team hopes that the find will help them better understand how environmental factors played a role in the creature's extinction, since it seems like some may have lasted a lot longer than previously thought by migrating across great distances.

    Knowing how the species survived for so long, and potentially what wiped it out in the end, could allow us to make more informed choices about the future of our own species, as we find ourselves in a rather perilous situation.

    The results of the study have been published in the American Journal of Applied Science.

    A version of this article was originally published in March 2016.


    Where did the ‘Siberian unicorn’ disappear?

    Nowadays the researchers of Tomsk State University (TSU) figured out that the “unicorn” found his last refuge “only” 29,000 years ago in Kazakhstan. The article, describing the new location of the fossil mammals in the Pavlodar Irtysh, was published in February 2016 in the American Journal of Applied Science.

    “Most likely, in the south of Western Siberia it was a refúgium, where this rhino had preserved the longest in comparison with the rest of its range. There is another option that it could migrate and dwell for a while on the more southern areas,” said Andrey Shpanski, a paleontologist at TSU. These conclusions were made due to research of the rhinocero’s skull, found near Kozhamzhar village in Pavlodar region (Kazakhstan). The skull is well preserved: there are some cracks but no trace of pelletization, gnawing, and exfoliation.

    The fossils of the “unicorn” were examined by radiocarbon AMS-method analysis in the laboratory 14CHRONO Centre for Climate, the Environment, and Chronology (School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology Queen’s University Belfast Belfast, UK). It turned out that the skull belonged to the animals that died 29,000 years ago. “Most likely, it was a very large male of very large individual age (teeth not preserved). The dimensions of this rhino today are the biggest of those described in the literature, and the proportion are typical,” said the University’s scientist.

    Elasmotherium sibiricum supposed to be extinct about 350,000 years ago. Its habitat was the vast territory from the Don River to the east of modern Kazakhstan. Overview Elasmotherium residue findings in the Pavlodar Irtysh showed quite a long existence of these rhinos in the southeast of the West Siberian Plain.

    An extinction period of the “unicorn” can now be compared with the boundary between Kargin thermochron and Sartan cryochron of late pleistocene (boundary of MIS 3 and 2) in Western Siberia. These data are pushing us for mass radiocarbon studies of mammalian remains that were previously known as ancient and extinct more than 50-100,000 years ago. “Our research makes adjustments in the understanding of the environmental conditions in the geologic time in general. Understanding of the past allows us to make more accurate predictions about natural processes in the near future: it also concerns climate change,” summed up Shpanski.