Elasmotherium

elasmotherium
Elasmotherium. Dmitry Bogdanov

Name:

Elasmotherium (Greek for "plated beast"); pronounced eh-LAZZ-moe-THEE-ree-um

Habitat:

Plains of Eurasia

Historical Epoch:

Pleistocene-Modern (two million-10,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 20 feet long and 3-4 tons

Diet:

Grass

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; thick coat of fur; long, single horn on snout

About Elasmotherium

The largest of all the prehistoric rhinoceroses of the Pleistocene epoch, Elasmotherium was a truly massive piece of megafauna, and all the more imposing thanks to its thick, shaggy coat of fur (this mammal was closely related to the contemporary Coelodonta, also known as the "woolly rhino") and the huge horn on the end of its snout. This horn, which was made of keratin (the same protein as human hair), may have reached five or six feet in length, and was likely a sexually selected characteristic, males with bigger horns able to better attract females during mating season. For all its size, bulk and presumed aggressiveness, though, Elasmotherium was still a relatively gentle herbivore--and one well-adapted to eating grass rather than leaves or shrubs, as evidenced by its almost comically heavy, flat teeth and lack of characteristic incisors.

Elasmotherium consists of three species. E. caucasicum, as you can infer by its name, was discovered in the Caucasus region of central Asia in the early 20th century; almost a century later, in 2004, some of these specimens were reclassified as E. chaprovicum. The third species, E. sibiricum, is known from various Siberian and Russian fossils excavated in the early 19th century. Elasmotherium and its various species appear to have evolved from another, earlier "elasmothere" mammal of Eurasia, Sinotherium, which also lived during the late Pliocene epoch. As to the exact relationship of Elasmotherium to modern rhinoceroses, it appears to have been an intermediate form; "rhino" wouldn't necessarily be the first association a time traveler would make when glimpsing this beast for the first time!

Since Elasmotherium survived up to the cusp of the modern era, only going extinct after the last Ice Age, it was well known to the early human settlers of Eurasia--and may well have inspired the Unicorn legend. (See 10 Mythical Beasts Inspired by Prehistoric Animals.) Stories of a mythical horned beast vaguely resembling Elasmotherium, and called the Indrik, can be found in medieval Russian literature, and a similar animal is referenced in ancient texts from Indian and Persian civilizations; one Chinese scroll refers to a "quadruped with the body of a deer, the tail of a cow, the head of a sheep, the limbs of a horse, the hooves of a cow, and a big horn." Quite possibly, these stories were imported into medieval European culture via translation by monks or word of mouth by travelers, thus giving birth to what we know today as the one-horned Unicorn (which, granted, resembles a horse much more than it does a rhinoceros!)