Mammoth-sized Rhinos: Elasmotherium and the Unicorn Legend

Adult Fossil of Elasmotherium
Museum of History, Russia

Have you ever heard of Elasmotherium?  It is a mouthful.  Elasmotherium lived from 2 million years ago to almost the present day, 10,000 years ago. They were a species of giant, mammoth-sized rhinos, twice the size of a modern-day black rhino. Their horns could be as long as a person is tall. There is some disagreement among scientists whether Elasmotherium had thick fur or very little, like modern-day rhinos do. However, they lived in Eurasia where it would have been very cold and, like other megafauna (large animals) at the time, would likely have had a thick coat of hair to keep warm.

Elasmotherium was first discovered in Russia in the 1700s. It was named by Johann Fischer von Waldheim in 1808. The name “Elasmotherium” is from Greek and means “plated beast”.

Elasmotherium Model PhotoIt is known that Elasmotherium lived in Eurasia, but scientists still are unsure exactly how they might have moved. Some think that they would have moved about like a horse. Others think they would have kept their head close to the ground to eat, like bison do. Still others think that they might have spent a good deal of time in water, like a hippo. There is some evidence for the bison theory. When examining the position of the skull and the neck, scientists can determine that they would not have been able to lift their heads very high and so would have eaten a grassy diet, as they could reach leaves. They would have had to eat a lot to sustain their size and would have grazed over large distances to constantly have new supply of food. Another piece of evidence for Elasmotherium being a grazer is in their teeth. They had very large molars and no canines or incisors. Further, their teeth show erosion from a tough grass diet.

While it is generally understood that Elasmotherium had a horn, they have not fossilized as you might have noticed on the fossil photo at the beginning of this post. That’s because they likely would have been made of entirely keratin, the same as hair or nails. There is an enormous amount of evidence pointing towards the horn, though, because of the formation of the skull, which looks like it would have been made to support a horn. Scientists can tell that a cross-section through the horn would not have been perfectly round, and puncture wounds in other fossils which too aren’t round indicate that they might have dueled over mates or used their horns as protection.

Many believe that Elasmotherium could have been the basis for unicorn mythology, the origins in Asia and gradually becoming diluted as they travel across Europe. Mongol interpretations have described it as large and dark in color and having a single horn, while later Chinese myths show it as more of a lion-like animal with a single horn, and with the ability to determine right and wrong, much as English myths represent unicorns as symbols of purity. In India, the unicorn come to look more horse-like in depictions, and travelling further West, the single horn of Elasmotherium becomes a symbol of monotheism: a single horn and a single deity. Eventually in the Middle Ages, these myths made it to England, where they became the popular image of a unicorn today, although those unicorns’ horns are based on narwhal horns rather than a rhino’s.

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