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Where did the 'Siberian unicorn' disappear?

National Research Tomsk State University

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IMAGE: This is Andrey Shpanski, a paleontologist at Tomsk State University. view more 

Credit: Tomsk State University

EurekAlert! Editorial Update: A comment regarding the reliability of the radiocarbon dating of the Siberian 'unicorn' described in this release was submitted by Queen's University Belfast researchers who performed the analysis and accepted by the American Journal of Applied Sciences on May 4, 2016:

Although our laboratory would not normally proceed with analysis for low collagen yield samples, because there was no other sample available and the whole bone nitrogen content and percent carbon were suitable, we did provide the date (UBA30522) but cautioned the authors that it should not be considered reliable. Analysis of further specimens is necessary before this claim is validated.

The abstract of the comment is available here and the full comment is available here. (Update issued Aug. 13, 2018)

The beautiful title "Siberian unicorn" belongs to Elasmotherium sibiricum - an elasmotherium Siberian rhinoceros, which as previously thought became extinct 350,000 years ago. Nowadays the researchers of Tomsk State University (TSU) figured out that the "unicorn" found his last refuge "only" 29,000 years ago in Kazakhstan. The article, describing the new location of the fossil mammals in the Pavlodar Irtysh, was published in February 2016 in the American Journal of Applied Science.

"Most likely, in the south of Western Siberia it was a refúgium, where this rhino had preserved the longest in comparison with the rest of its range. There is another option that it could migrate and dwell for a while on the more southern areas," said Andrey Shpanski, a paleontologist at TSU. These conclusions were made due to research of the rhinocero's skull, found near Kozhamzhar village in Pavlodar region (Kazakhstan). The skull is well preserved: there are some cracks but no trace of pelletization, gnawing, and exfoliation. The fossils of the "unicorn" were examined by radiocarbon AMS-method analysis in the laboratory 14CHRONO Centre for Climate, the Environment, and Chronology (School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology; Queen's University Belfast; Belfast, UK). It turned out that the skull belonged to the animals that died 29,000 years ago. "Most likely, it was a very large male of very large individual age (teeth not preserved). The dimensions of this rhino today are the biggest of those described in the literature, and the proportion are typical," said the University's scientist.

Elasmotherium sibiricum supposed to be extinct about 350,000 years ago. Its habitat was the vast territory from the Don River to the east of modern Kazakhstan. Overview Elasmotherium residue findings in the Pavlodar Irtysh showed quite a long existence of these rhinos in the southeast of the West Siberian Plain. An extinction period of the "unicorn" can now be compared with the boundary between Kargin thermochron and Sartan cryochron of late pleistocene (boundary of MIS 3 and 2) in Western Siberia. These data are pushing us for mass radiocarbon studies of mammalian remains that were previously known as ancient and extinct more than 50-100,000 years ago. "Our research makes adjustments in the understanding of the environmental conditions in the geologic time in general. Understanding of the past allows us to make more accurate predictions about natural processes in the near future: it also concerns climate change," summed up Shpanski.

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