Climate change wiped out the 'Siberian unicorn'
New research has shed light on the origin and extinction of a giant, shaggy Ice Age rhinoceros known as the Siberian unicorn because of its extraordinary single horn.
An international team of researchers from Adelaide, Sydney, London, the Netherlands, and Russia, have settled a long-standing debate about the relationship of the Siberian unicorn to living rhinos, and revealed that it survived much later than previously believed, overlapping in time with modern humans.
Published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution and led by London’s Natural History Museum, the researchers say the Siberian unicorn became extinct around 36,000 years ago. This was most likely because of reduction in steppe grassland where it lived – due to climate change rather than the impact of humans.
Today there are just five surviving species of rhino, although in the past there have been as many as 250 species.
Weighing up to 3.5 tonnes with a single enormous horn, the Siberian unicorn (Elasmotherium sibiricum), which roamed the steppe of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Northern China, was undoubtedly one of the most impressive.
Genetic analyses performed at the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), however, have shown that the Siberian unicorn was the last surviving member of a unique family of rhinos.
“The ancestors of the Siberian unicorn split from the ancestors of all living rhinos over 40 million years ago,” says co-author and ACAD researcher Dr Kieren Mitchell, who analysed the DNA of the Siberian unicorn. It is the first time DNA has ever been recovered from E. sibiricum.
“That makes the Siberian unicorn and the African white rhino even more distant cousins than humans are to monkeys.”
Image: An artist’s reconstruction of Elasmotherium sibiricum. Credit: DiBgd/Wikimedia Commons
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