The Siberian unicorn lived at the same time as modern humans



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Today there are only five surviving species of rhinoceros, but in different past there were up to 250 different species. Of these, one of the most impressive was Elasmotherium sibiricum.

Weighing up to 3.5 tons, he lived on the Eurasian prairies that run from southwestern Russia and Ukraine to Kazakhstan and Siberia.

Eventually the species was extinguished – but just when that happened it was in doubt.

For those who study the fauna of the last Ice Age, one of the most significant events of the period was the extinction of megafauna. He saw the disappearance of many large and iconic species, such as the woolly mammoth, the Irish elk, and the Saber tooth cat.

Prof. Adrian Lister, Meritorious Researcher at the Museum, says: "This megafauna extinction event did not really begin until about 40,000 years ago. like this Elasmotherium with its apparent extinction date of 100,000 years ago, was not considered as part of the same event. & # 39;

In recent years, however, there has been some evidence that this AND. sibiricum may be wrong.

We dated a few specimens – like the beautiful full skull we have in the Museum – and our surprise they came with less than 40 thousand years, "explains Adrian.

In your own this does not mean much, but by joining researchers from the Netherlands and Russia, many other fossils have been sampled. The researchers, who originally did not have a single radiocarbon dating Elasmotherium fossil, finished with 23 dated specimens.

"They very strongly confirmed that this species survived until at least 39,000 years ago, and perhaps as much as 35,000 years ago," says Adrian. The results were published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Ice Age giants

Elasmotherium sibiricum He was a true giant of the Ice Age, weighing up to twice as much as a modern rhinoceros.

Unusually, despite its enormous size and prominent shoulder hump, it is believed that the Siberian unicorn was actually adapted to run at speed.

"The anatomy of the rhinoceros suggests that it lived on very open and pasty plains, grazing almost entirely on the grass," Adrian explains. "His unusual teeth look very fit for this kind of grazing, too."

By studying the stable isotope ratios in the teeth of the rhinoceros, which involves looking at the levels of different carbon and nitrogen isotopes and then comparing them with different plants, the researchers were able to determine what the animals were eating. The results confirm that the Siberia unicorn probably grazed on hard, dry grasses.

As for how they behaved, however, researchers have to rely on live animals.

"Modern rhinos tend to be quite lonely and scattered in their habitat," says Adrian. & # 39; Combined with Elasmotheriumgeographically restricted, may have been a rather rare animal.

The Last Unicorn

This natural shortage may have been one of the factors that led to the extinction of the Siberian unicorn about 39,000 years ago, about the same time Neanderthals were extinct and some time before cave bears and hyenas were last seen in Europe.

This means that the animals would have shared Eurasia with modern humans and Neanderthals, but, as Adrian explains, they are unlikely to have been hunted to extinction.

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

Rather than it is far more likely that its extinction was the result of the dramatic climate fluctuations that were occurring during this time period along with the specialized grazing lifestyle and low population numbers.

"The environment in which the animal lived seems to have changed quite considerably at the same time as it was extinguished," Adrian explains, "so it is quite plausible that if it were a rare animal to begin with, it would have been 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 DNA has ever been recovered AND. sibiricum.

This helped to resolve a debate about where the Siberian unicorn, along with all the other members of the Elastrotherium genus, fit in the evolutionary rhinoceros tree.

It turns out that the ancient group separated from the modern group of rhinoceros about 43 million years ago. This means that the Siberian unicorn was the last species of a highly distinctive and ancient lineage when it was extinguished on the Eurasian plains only a few tens of thousands of years ago.

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