Close your eyes and imagine, if you will, a unicorn. Maybe you’re envisioning a valiant steed racing down a rainbow with an elegant horn adorning it’s forehead — the kind of creature that wouldn’t look out of place in the “My Little Pony” franchise. Unfortunately, I’m here to burst your bubble: new research has uncovered details on the origins and extinction of Elasmotherium sibiricum, otherwise known as the “Siberian unicorn.” The reality is a bit less “My Little Pony” and a bit more massive, shaggy Ice Age rhino with an enormous single horn. And as it turns out, the Siberian unicorn was yet another casualty of climate change.
Published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, the research showcased the first DNA analysis of fossils of the now extinct Siberian unicorn. The international team of researchers, hailing from Australia, the UK, the Netherlands, and Russia, found that E. sibiricum went extinct much later than previously believed, which was thought to be 200,000 years ago. Through genetic analyses of 23 bone specimens of the species, the researchers estimate that E. sibiricum survived in areas including Eastern Europe and Central Asia until at least 39,000 years ago. That timeline suggests that early modern humans and Neanderthals coexisted alongside the species in its final years on Earth.
Clocking in at roughly over 7,700 pounds each, the majestic creatures roamed what’s now modern Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Northern China. The unicorn was also deemed to be the last surviving member of its rhinoceros subfamily, making the Siberian unicorn and the African white rhino more distant cousins than humans are to monkeys, noted study co-author Dr. Kieren Mitchell in a statement.
The scientists believe the extinction was due, in part, to a loss of the Siberian unicorn’s habitat of steppe grassland — a loss triggered by climate change. The animals relied on tough and dry grasses as a diet staple, and as the Earth warmed up, many of these grassland habitats started to shrink, which the researchers believe contributed to the animal’s extinction.
"It is unlikely that the presence of humans was the cause of extinction,” said study co-author Chris Turney, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales, in a statement. "The Siberian unicorn appears to have been badly hit by the start of the Ice Age in Eurasia when a precipitous fall in temperature led to an increase in the amount of frozen ground, reducing the tough, dry grasses it lived on and impacting populations over a vast region."
Today, there are five surviving species of rhino, and while the Siberian unicorn is no longer, studying the animal's extinction is useful for finding ways to help save the planet’s remaining rhinos. One of the study’s leaders, Professor Adrian Lister of London’s Natural History Museum, told BBC News that modern rhinos are in particular danger of extinction due to their pickiness about their habitat.
"Any change in their environment is a danger for them," Lister said to BBC News. "And, of course, what we've also learned from the fossil record is that once a species is gone, that's it, it's gone for good."