According to a study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, a huge species of mysterious, feathered rhinos, called the Siberian unicorn, due to its large one-horned rhinoceros, survived in Western Russia only 36,000 years ago. This extinction means that the last days of unicorns in Siberia were shared with early modern people and Neanderthals.
Little was known about the creature that was previously thought to have been depleted more than 200,000 years ago. But genetic analysis and radiocarbon dating began to reveal many aspects of how he lived and died.
An important finding is that unicorns in Siberia, modern human hunting, have not even disappeared from the last Ice Age peak of 25,000 years ago.
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Instead, it has fallen into a subtle change in the climate that reduces pastures from China to Eastern Europe.
Our new results showed that the Siberian unicorn was dependent on these pastures and could not adapt to change, as opposed to other species such as saiga antelope.
Siberian Unicorn (I ElasmotheriThere was only one large horn estimated to a meter length. It was one of a variety of rhino species that once existed.
In addition to extinct wool rhinos (there are still frozen mummies), there are five species of living rhino. All of these creatures are in distress, including the white rhinoceros (now under threat).
The Javan rhino (critically endangered) and the Sumatran rhino (critically endangered).
The loss of the Siberian unicorn provides a valuable case study of the weak resistance of rhinos to environmental change.
The animal we worked in was found in present-day Russia, but the area has now expanded to include areas such as Kazakhstan, Mongolia and North China. There was a steppe-like habitat dominated by grasses and plants.
The Siberian unicorn shared this environment with other species of ice age such as saiga antelope and wool rhinoceros and mammoth.
But so far, many evidence has suggested that unicorns in Siberia were consumed 200,000 years ago, while woolly rhinos and mammoths were consumed around 13,000 and 4000 years ago, respectively.
So, while unicorns in Siberia have gone extinct, have other species lived in the same habitat lasted for thousands of years, or, like saiga, are they still alive today?
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Several unconfirmed proofs have recently suggested that unicorns in Siberia have survived to the present day, such as wool rhinos. Therefore, we examined 23 bone specimens of the animal kept in museum collections in Russia and the United Kingdom.
More than 200,000 years ago, new dating revealed that the unicorn in Siberia was actually extinct as it was only 36,000 years ago.
Then we figured out how she might have been extinct.
Climate change seems to be a probable contender – but 36,000 years ago, the height of the Ice Age, which occurred 20,000-25,000 years ago.
This history, however, coincides with the timing of a significant shift towards cooler summers in Northern Europe and Asia. This seasonal change caused the herbs and plants to become less sparse and to increase the tundra plant species such as algae and lichens.
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Why, in the climate of 36,000 years ago, had changed, the unicorn in Siberia was extinct, but not wool rhinos or saiga?
To answer this question, our study took fossil bones from the Siberian horned horse, wool rhinoceros and saunas, and studied the nitrogen and carbon they contained – the differences in these elements reflect the feeding of an animal.
36,000 years ago, we saw that the saiga and Siberian unicorns behaved in a very similar way, and they almost ate only grass. After this point, the carbon and nitrogen in the saiga bones showed a major dietary shift against other plant species.
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However, it was very difficult for the Siberian horned horses with a low-headed head, with special folded wear-resistant teeth and grass height, sliding from the lawn diet. Relatives like woolly rhinos always ate a more balanced plant line and were less affected by a change in their habitat.
More importantly, the unicorned extinct climate change in Siberia was much less pronounced than what occurred in the subsequent Ice Age. Or the changes we'll have in the near future.
The story of the Siberian unicorn recalls that even subtle changes in plant distribution can have devastating effects for large animal species.
Worriedly, this is a terrible risk for many animals, such as cousins of unicorns in Siberia, which already have very limited ranges for humans.