Artist's impression of Elasmotherium sibiricum

An extinct rhinoceros’s picky eating habits probably contributed to its demise. Credit: Roman Uchytel

Palaeontology

Siberian ‘unicorns’ grazed Asia less than 40,000 years ago

Climate shifts may explain the extinction of grass-loving giant rhinoceros.

A 3,500-kilogram mammal nicknamed the Siberian unicorn for the long horn that jutted from its forehead became extinct surprisingly recently.

Elasmotherium sibiricum, a rhinoceros that roamed the steppes of central Asia, was the last surviving member of its subfamily. To determine when the species became extinct — an event previously estimated to have occurred 200,000 years ago — researchers led by Adrian Lister at the Natural History Museum in London applied radiocarbon dating to the remains of 23 individuals. This revealed that the most recent specimens may have died only 35,000 years ago.

The authors also analysed the fossils’ mitochondrial DNA, which is transmitted from mothers to their offspring. The DNA confirmed that E. sibiricum and its relatives last shared an ancestor with living rhinoceroses around 47 million years ago.

The Siberian unicorn’s extinction coincided with the disappearance of many other large-bodied Eurasian animals. Homo sapiens also arrived in the region at around this time. However, the demise of E. sibiricum, a specialized grazer, may have been linked to environmental and climatic shifts affecting its habitat.