The real last unicorn didn’t prance around an enchanted forest or magically transform into a princess — but the elusive creature roamed the steppe of ancient Siberia and probably sent shockwaves of fear and awe into any prehistoric humans who got an eyeful of it.
Elasmotherium sibericum was an ancient rhino whose one massive horn technically made it a sort of unicorn. It might have never sparkled or vomited rainbows (or inspired an onslaught of memes that have now taken over the internet), but this hulking, hairy beast was still something to behold. As a recent study determined, it also went extinct much later than anyone thought, meaning it actually coexisted with our ancestors.
This creature was strange enough to qualify as a cryptid that actually existed. It roamed the Eurasian grasslands and weighed around 3.5 tons, but its sleek limbs suggest that it could run like the things you read about in fairy tales. Its teeth reveal that it grazed on dry grasses which were probably less appetizing than cotton candy and marshmallows or whatever unicorns are supposed to eat.
It used to be thought that E. sibericum went extinct between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, but the new study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution found it actually lived until 39,000 years ago.
A team of international scientists studied the remains of 23 of these “unicorns” and extracted E. sibericum DNA for the first time ever. They determined the species survived much longer than previous research assumed, and were also wiped out by a later mass extinction event that would also be the demise of the saber-toothed cat and woolly mammoth.
“This megafaunal extinction event didn't really get going until about 40,000 years ago,” explained Prof. Adrian Lister, Merit Researcher at the Natural History Museum in London and lead author of the study. “So Elasmotherium with its apparent extinction date of 100,000 years ago has not been considered as part of that same event.”
Could it have been hunted to death? Humans ruin everything, but in this case it was really climate change that brought E. sibericum down. It lived during a phase of the Ice Age when drastic and often fatal shifts in climate could mean everything from drought and desertification to plummeting sea levels. The rhino-corns already had low population numbers and a specialized grazing lifestyle that made them easy to destroy before they could adapt to their changing surroundings.
E. sibericum really was the last unicorn of a unique species group that disappeared forever when the last one of these majestic creatures fell prey to a temperamental planet. Unicorn status aside, you get the feeling a glittery rainbow meme just wouldn’t be enough of a tribute.