Elasmotherium is the now extinct rhinoceros that many think led to the belief in unicorns. It is thought that prehistoric cave paintings depicting large animals with a single, enormous horn originate from sightings of this immense and spectacular creature. It had a single, nearly vertical horn that has been measured at up to six feet long in fossil specimens. Its horn was located further up the snout towards the eyes of the animal. Although this species is well studied and documented, the evolutionary lineage of this animal was unclear and contained several gaps.
Dr. Deng Tao of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in China and his colleagues remedied this in the Linxia Basin of northwestern China. They found the first complete skull of the previously described species Sinotherium largelii. This was an exciting find because S. largelii filled one of the gaps in the fossil record leading to Elasmotherium by showing a morphological intermediary between the fabled Elasmotherium and the rest of the Elasmotheriini family.
While modern rhinos have the horn located at the end of the snout, S. largelii had two horns. One small horn located directly posterior to the larger horn with similar placement to Elasmotherium. This morphological similarity has led scientists to believe that S. largelii is the link that was missing between the ancient two-horned rhinos and the more recent one-horned rhinos.
S. largelii is estimated to be about 7.7 tons, nearly twice the size of modern rhinos. Because of its immense weight it is unlikely that it would live near a body of water because it would sink in the softer ground. It is thought that the massive ancient Rhinoceros lived in the arid planes of East Asia during the late Miocene. The teeth of the animal provide additional evidence for this idea because of their plated shape and ridged enamel designed to deal with tough grass as is found on the planes.
Read the research in Chinese Science Bulletin, May 2013.
The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.