Mistakenly known as “Siberian unicorns”, a rhino-like species called Elasmotherium sibiricum survived for hundreds of thousands of years more than previously thought. Scientists from Tomsk State University found fossil evidence of these curious animals and revealed that they went extinct 350,000 years ago, according to a study published last month in the American Journal of Applied Sciences. That means they got to co-exist with humans.
The species has been compared to unicorns because of its large thorn, which Forbes reported was “likely multiple feet long”. But the truth is they had nothing to do with the beautiful mythological creatures aside from the large horn on its head used for defense. The Elasmotherium sibiricum was actually similar to a rhino.
The research team analyzed the newly found fossilized skull, which was discovered in Kazakhstan alongside fossils of prehistoric bison and mammoths.
It remains unclear how the “Siberian unicorn” managed to survive hundreds of thousands of years longer than scientists expected. They suggest its ancestors probably migrated into a gentler microclimate or that it might be the remnant of a larger population that had disappeared across the rest of the vast area it once lived in.
“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,” paleontologist and study author Andrey Shpanski said in a press release.
These prehistoric rhinos were enormous creatures with a weight of around 8,000-10,000 pounds and up to 15 feet long, meaning that they were much larger than an Asian or African forest elephant. Elasmotherium sibiricum was a herbivore which would have occupied a vast territory in the modern eastern Russia and Kazakhstan, from the Don River almost to Mongolia.
Until now, the fossils of the ancient animals had been found at multiple sites and then this team of researchers discovered a large E. sibiricum skull near the Kozhamzhar village in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan.
The scientists involved in the study concluded that the skull likely belonged to a massive male which died 29,000 years ago. They are not able to accurately estimate its measurements without a fossilized body.
The ancient rhino complicates previous research of other prehistoric fossils
Study authors wrote in the paper that the newly-discovered timing of this skull represents a significant challenge because it complicates a large number of findings and research based on extinction periods. Many of other prehistoric fossils are no dated by using radiocarbon isotope measurements, but only with respect to each other.
The fact that the ancient rhino survived for much longer than expected raises questions about the dates of extinction of many other fossils. Researchers say these challenges could be solved with more radiocarbon dating.
The study of fossils helps scientists draw conclusions about past environments and better understand how the planet has evolved. Dr. Shpanski said this kind of research allows them to accurately predict future processes, including climate change.
Source: Christian Science Monitor