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Friday, February 1, 2013

Megafauna Week: Elasmotherium.

Ah, unicorns.  What would be cooler than meeting a unicorn? Wouldn't it be awesome if unicorns were, y'know, real? Then that unicorns VS zombies book would actually have some merit, and bronies would not be up in our faces anymore.

The good news: Macro Polo saw one. Here's what he wrote:

They have wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead . . . They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.

It has long since been decided that Marco Polo was describing a rhinoceros, not a pretty white unicorn found on some chick's binder. Still, fossil evidence suggests that the traveler may have been onto something:


If the narwhal and oryx were not inspiration for the unicorn, one might suggest fossil evidence of the Elasmotherium, a relative of the rhinoceros. It lived from the Pliocene to the Pleistocene, and may have been around as recently as 50,000 years ago - old enough for a few people to have seen it and drawn it in caves. They spanned much of Asia and into Europe.

The most outstanding trait of this giant herbivore was the single horn on its face. Although "unicorn" or "monoceros" may refer to almost anything with one horn, only Elasmotherium has the horn placed right where the modern notion of "unicorn" has it - on the forehead. It was characterized as being capable of galloping based on having longer legs than most rhinoceros-like animals. We think it ate grass like a horse, too. Even with narwhals and oryx around, the Elasmotherium strikes one as a very likely basis for unicorns indeed.

Cave drawing from France.

So just how big was the real unicorn? Think 15-16 feet from head to tail. A basketball player could barely reach the top of its shoulder. It weighed 3-4 tons. Although far from the petite, slender creature depicted everywhere nowadays, Elasmotherium was still pretty amazing as far as unicorns go. Sorry, Twilight Sparkle was completely made up.

Cheer up, fantasy fans. Unicorns were once real. Sure, they weren't the prancing ponies we know today, but they were still around. The best part is, you'll never see a Christian arguing that unicorns never existed; they're in the Bible.


  1. Real Elasmotherium horn

  2. As well as Narwhale horns I beleive that the horns of Racka sheep from Hungary were passed off as Unicorn horns in the Middle Ages. Unlike most sheep whos horns curl in a spiral at the sides of their heads, the Racka's horns grow out strait with a twist to them. The ram's horns grow to two feet and better. The ewes have more petite horns at about 16 to 18 inches.