Sunday , September 26 2021

The Siberian unicorn lived at the same time as modern humans

Today there are just five surviving species of rhino, but at different times in the past there were as many as 250 different species. Of these, one of the most impressive was Elasmotherium sibiricum.

Weighing up to 3.5 tonnes, it lived on the Eurasian grasslands ranging from southwestern Russia and Ukraine to Kazakhstan and Siberia.

Eventually the species went extinct – but exactly when that happened has been in doubt.

For those studying the wildlife of the last Ice Age, one of the most significant events of the period was the megafaunal extinction. It saw the disappearance of many large, iconic species such as the woolly mammoth, the Irish elk and the saber-toothed cat

Prof. Adrian Lister, Merit Researcher at the Museum, says, 'This megafaunal extinction event did not really get going until about 40,000 years ago. Sound Elasmotherium With its apparent extinction date of 100,000 years ago, you have not been considered part of that same event. '

Over the past few years, however, there have been some hints that this extinction date for E. sibiricum could be wrong

'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, "explains Adrian.

On its own This did not mean much, but by teaming up with researchers from the Netherlands and Russia, many more fossils were sampled. The researchers, who originally had no single radiocarbon-dated Elasmotherium Fossil, ended up with 23 dated specimens.

'They strongly strongly confirmed that this species survived until at least 39,000 years ago, and maybe as late as 35,000 years ago,' says Adrian. The results have been published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Ice Age giants

Elasmotherium sibiricum I was a true Ice Age giant, weighing up to twice as much as modern Rhino.

Unusually, despite its massive size and prominent shoulder hump, it is thought that the Siberian unicorn was actually adapted to running at speed.

'The rhino's anatomy suggested that it lived in pretty open, grassy plains, grazing almost entirely on grass,' explains Adrian. 'Its unusual teeth look very strongly for that kind of grazing too.'

By studying the stable isotope ratios in the rhino's teeth, which involves looking at the levels of different carbon and nitrogen isotopes and then comparing them to different plants, the researchers were able determine what the animals were eating The results confirm that the Siberian unicorn was most likely grazing on tough, dry grasses.

Regarding how they behaved, however, researchers have to rely on living animals.

'Modern Rhinos tend to be rather lonely and spread out in their habitat,' says Adrian. 'Combined with Elasmotherium's restricted geographical range, it could have been quite a rare animal.'

The last unicorn

This natural scarcity may have been one of the factors that tipped the Siberian unicorn into extinction some 39,000 years ago, around the same time that Neanderthals went extinct and some time before cave bears and spotted hyenas were last seen in Europe.

This means that the animals would have been sharing Eurasia with both modern humans and Neanderthals, but as Adrian explains, it is unlikely that they were hunted into extinction.

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

Instead it is much more likely that their extinction was the result of the dramatic fluctuations in climate that were occurring during this time period, coupled with the specialized grazing lifestyle and low population numbers.

'The environment where the animal was living seems to have changed quite considerably around the same time it went extinct,' explains Adrian, 'so it's quite plausible that if it was a rare animal to start then it would have been at a relatively high risk of extinction. '

The first DNA

Finally, Adrian's colleagues in Australia were able to extract DNA from some of the fossils, the first time any DNA has ever been recovered from E. sibiricum.

This has helped to settle a debate about where the Siberian Unicorn, along with all the other members of the Elastrotherium genus, fit on the rhino evolutionary tree.

It turns out that the ancient group split from the modern group of rhinos roughly 43 million years ago. This means that the Siberian unicorn was the last species of a very distinctive and ancient lineage when it was extinct on the Eurasian plains only a few decades ago.

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