Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Wednesday 9 July 2014


A magnificent restoration of the giant unicorn – a brow-horned Pleistocene rhinoceros known formally as Elasmotherium (© Zdenek Burian)

As I documented in an extremely comprehensive chapter within my book Dr Shuker's Casebook: In Pursuit of Marvels and Mysteries (2008) and subsequently added to in a ShukerNature blog article (click here), a very considerable number of unicorn varieties have been differentiated in legends and folklore from around the world – everything from shape-shifting were-unicorns, carnivorous rabbit unicorns, polar bear unicorns with glowing horns, web-footed unicorns, swivel-horned unicorns, and man-eating unicorns with musical horns, to unicorn birds, unicorn snakes, unicorn snails, unicorn pigs, artificially-induced unicorns, and  even two-horned unicorns (surely a contradiction in terms!).

One of the least-known members of this diverse array, however, is also among of the most fascinating – the giant black unicorn of Siberia. For this spectacular creature is not only of interest to students of animal mythology but may have significant cryptozoological relevance too.

The traditional lore of Siberia’s Evenk people tells of a huge black bull-like creature bearing a single round, thick, tapering horn of immense size upon the middle of its head. This notoriously belligerent beast would charge at any Evenk rider that it spied, tossing the unfortunate man into the air if it could reach him, and spearing him when he fell back down to earth until he died. Moreover, its horn was so large and heavy that if one of these mega-unicorns were killed, the horn alone needed an entire sledge to transport it. Could this awesome but ostensibly fictitious animal have been inspired at least in part by a living species?

The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn

Pursuing a suggestion originally put forward by Alexander Brandt and Norman Lockyer in a Nature paper of 8 August 1878, in his book The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn (1948) veteran cryptozoological writer Willy Ley presented a fascinating line of speculation as to the possible origin of the Evenk people's traditional lore concerning giant black unicorns of ferocious demeanour:

"The paleontologists of around the year 1900 began to believe that they had successfully discovered the original unicorn. In Russia and in Siberia bones and skulls of an extinct distant relative of the rhinoceros were discovered. This animal, Elasmotherium sibiricum, seemed to resemble the ancient reports [of unicorns] even more than does the living rhinoceros. It was noticeably larger than the largest Indian rhinoceros, its horn was much longer and was actually situated in the middle of the forehead of the animal. But after the first excitement had subsided, most scientists abandoned the idea that Elasmotherium had anything to do with the unicorn legend. However, as Melchior Neumayr wrote in his History of the Earth: it is possible that in Siberia man and Elasmotherium actually lived together and that Elasmotherium was exterminated by man; at least one may explain in this way the ancient songs of the Tunguses [aka the Evenks], which tell that formerly there lived in their country a kind of terrible black ox of gigantic size and with only one horn in the middle of the forehead, so large that an entire sled was needed for the transportation of this horn alone."

Was Elasmotherium (above) the Evenks' giant black unicorn? (© Philip72/Wikipedia)

Up to 15 ft long and standing over 6.5 ft at the shoulder, E. sibiricum was comparable to a woolly mammoth Mammuthus primigenius in size, and (at least for a rhinoceros) had proportionately long legs. The last member of its genus, it is believed to have survived in Siberia until at least 350,000 years ago but quite possibly as late as 50,000 years ago, during the late Pleistocene epoch (and definitely as recently as 26,000 years ago in Kazakhstan, thanks to the discovery there of Elasmotherium skull fragments, made public in March 2016).

Consequently, this makes the hypothesis of survival for a time by this species alongside modern man in Siberia as outlined above by Ley neither impossible nor even overly implausible. An earlier species, E. caucasicum, had flourished in the Black Sea region of Europe during the early Pleistocene and was even bigger, up to 16 ft long and weighing an estimated 4-5 tons.

Reconstruction of a pair of Siberian giant unicorns Elasmotherium sibiricum (© Apokryltaros/Wikipedia)

Certainly, a huge gracile rhinoceros bearing a gargantuan horn not upon its snout's nasal bones like all known living rhino species today but upon its brow's frontal bones instead might well make a very convincing giant unicorn. And indeed, Elasmotherium is commonly referred to informally by this exact name - the giant unicorn.

Nor is the huge black unicorn of Evenk lore the only evidence that has been put forward in support of the postulated if currently-unproven late survival of Elasmotherium and its contemporaneous, pre-extermination existence alongside humanity in Asia. In 1958, two additional Elasmotherium species were formally named – E. inexpectatum and E. peii, both of which had lived in northern China during the early Pleistocene, becoming extinct around 1.6 million years ago. However, they were subsequently reclassified as Chinese representatives of E. caucasicum rather than separate species in their own respective right (meanwhile, fossil remains of a still-valid third species, E. chaprovicum, have been obtained from Europe and Asia, and date from 2.6 million to 2.2 million years ago).

An enraged Elasmotherium versus a couple of pesky prehistoric felids (© Hodari Nundu/Deviantart.com)

Nevertheless, the onetime occurrence of any species of Elasmotherium in China is particularly intriguing, due to the existence of a certain very unusual and greatly perplexing example of Chinese iconography.

While browsing online on 8 August 2012, I came upon a photograph of a small but very distinctive and highly unusual animal figurine, made of bronze. On first sight, it somewhat resembled a rhinoceros, with a short pointed horn upon its snout – but a closer look revealed that this horn curved forwards, whereas those of rhinos normally curve backwards. Moreover, its body did not bear any 'armour pleats' like those exhibited to varying degrees by all five rhino species alive today (unless the vertical lines that continue up onto its body the lines of its limbs are meant to represent the pleats present on the body of the great Indian rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis, a species present in ancient China before being hunted into extinctuion there; but if so, they are not portrayed at all accurately and entirely lack the transverse creases running across the limbs' proximal region). Even more striking, however, was something that it did bear – a second, larger horn…but not upon its nasal bones. Instead, projecting slightly forwards, it arose directly from the centre of the creature's brow – just like the horn of a unicorn!

The photograph depicting this intriguing figurine (reproduced below) appeared on the s8int.com website, which offers a biblical perspective on science (including cryptozoology), and is written by Chris Parker. Accompanying the photograph were details of its origin and recent history, followed by Parker's thoughts as to what type of creature it may represent.

The mystifying Chinese quasi-rhino figurine (copyright owner unknown to me/image source online = http://s8int.com/WordPress/)

Those details revealed that the figurine was in excellent condition and dated from China's Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), an extremely formidable combination as far as its value as a collectible objet d'art was concerned, because in 2007 it was sold at auction by Christies in London for the staggering sum of US$ 216,000 !!

The Lot description for it that was provided by Christies read as follows:


"Shown standing four-square with tail flicked to the left, the head well cast with two horns of different length, ears pricked back, small eyes and downward curved, overlapping muzzle sensitively cast along the upper edges of the mouth with folds in the skin, which can also be seen in the skin of the neck and chest, the thick hide indicated by overlapping wave pattern diminishing in size on the head and legs, with a rectangular aperture in the belly, the dark brownish surface with some patches of dark red patina and green encrustation.

"Lot Notes

"The depiction of the rhinoceros in bronze is very rare, especially during the Tang period. Earlier depictions do exist, however, as evidenced by the late Shang rhinoceros zun [i.e. an ancient Chinese wine vessel made of bronze or ceramic] in the Avery Brundage Collection, illustrated by d’Argencè, The Ancient Chinese Bronzes, San Francisco, 1966, pl. XIX and another large zun (22 7/8in. long), ornately decorated, but quite realistic in its depiction of a rhinoceros, of late Eastern Zhou/Western Han dynasty date, found in Xingping Xian, Shaanxi province, included in the exhibition, The Great Bronze Age of China, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980, New York, Catalogue, no. 93"

So, in spite of the fundamental differences in morphology exhibited by this figurine, it was nonetheless deemed to be a rhinoceros by whoever had prepared its Lot description at Christies - even though they had actually included references within that very same Lot description to much more accurate yet even earlier Chinese depictions of rhinoceroses. One can only assume, therefore, that the writer in question was determined to identify it, however tenuously, with some known animal type, and/or was not a zoologist!

Triceratops, the most famous genus of ceratopsian dinosaur (© Nobu Tamura/Wikipedia)

Swiftly dismissing the rhinoceros from serious consideration as the figurine's basis, Parker offered up a very thought-provoking if dramatic alternative – a ceratopsian dinosaur. Known colloquially as the horned dinosaurs, this group included such prehistoric stalwarts as Triceratops, Styracosaurus, and Monoclonius (aka Centrosaurus). Officially, of course, like all dinosaurs, the last ceratopsians became extinct around 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous Period. But could a ceratopsian lineage have somehow survived beyond the Cretaceous and persisted right up and into the present day, undiscovered by science but represented iconographically by this perplexing work of ancient Chinese art?

Sadly for such an exciting prospect, the figurine lacks the bony neck frill characterizing quadrupedal ceratopsians, and its snout horn curves forward instead of backwards like that of ceratopsians. Also, its tail does not appear to be as long and hefty as that of the latter dinosaurs (this characteristic is deduced from the fact that in the photograph it is hidden on the creature's left side, whereas if it were of ceratopsian dimensions it would have been too big to have been concealed in this manner). Conversely, the figurine does possess what Parker interpreted as a beak, which if so would certainly help to ally it morphologically with the ceratopsians, because these reptiles famously sported large beaks. However, it simply looks to me like a large pointed upper lip, very similar in shape, in fact, to that of Africa's black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis and also, albeit to a lesser degree, that of the great Indian rhino.

Head of Chinese quasi-rhino figurine (top) and head of black rhinoceros (bottom), showing that the former apparently shares the latter's well-defined pointed upper lip

Of particular interest is that Parker then compared the figurine with a certain cryptid that has already been popularly linked to the idea of a putative modern-day ceratopsian – tropical Africa's emela-ntouka ('killer of elephants'). This is an aquatic snout-horned mystery beast that is said by native observers to disembowel with its long pointed horn any elephants recklessly trespassing within its swamp or lake domain (click here for more information regarding it). Unlike the Chinese figurine, however, the emela-ntouka does possess a very long, heavy ceratopsian-like tail, though it too is frill-less, and it also sports a pair of small but elephant-like ears – an incongruous feature indeed for any reptile to exhibit, thus indicating that it is mammalian rather than reptilian in identity.

Artistic impression of the emela-ntouka (© Jean Claude Thibault)

Parker concluded his account by briefly considering the mythological Chinese unicorn, noting that one Chinese researcher has proposed that depictions of this supposedly non-existent beast may in reality have been based upon sightings of a surviving species of Elasmotherium. Could the same identity thus explain the Chinese figurine too, he wondered?

Personally, I don't think so. To begin with, the figurine's snout-horn would be an anomaly for any Elasmotherium species currently known from the fossil record. In addition, even its brow horn, though correctly located, seems far too short and slender to be comparable to that of Elasmotherium. Conversely, its legs are indeed relatively long, like those of Elasmotherium, but its body is proportionately much too short and squat to be compatible with the huge 15-ft-plus length attributed by palaeontologists to the proportionately very long body of Elasmotherium. So I am certainly not persuaded personally by such an identity for it.

As far as I am concerned, unless it constitutes an inordinately stylised (or just simply inaccurate!) representation of the great Indian rhinoceros the identity of this Chinese quasi-rhino figurine remains unresolved.

Chinese quasi-rhino figurine (top) compared with Elasmotherium (bottom)

In any case, there is an issue of especial relevance concerning any attempt to link horned cryptids to Elasmotherium that has not been mentioned here so far, but which definitely needs to be – so here it is. All of the varied lines of speculation discussed above in this present ShukerNature blog article stem directly from one single, fundamental assumption – namely, that Elasmotherium really did possess a horn, and a monstrously large one at that. Consequently, it will undoubtedly come as something of a surprise to discover now that despite many fossil remains of Elasmotherium having been found, and from many different sites too, not a single Elasmotherium horn, of any size, has ever been uncovered. So why do palaeontologists assume not only that it was horned but also that its presumed horn was so enormous?

The answer to this pertinent question is the presence of a very large hemispherical protuberance, 3 ft in circumference and 5 in deep, with a furrowed (and therefore vascularised?) surface, upon the frontal bones, which is traditionally interpreted as the base for a horn. Moreover, coupled with the occurrence of irregular bony deposition normally indicating that an exceptionally firm attachment to something was required there, plus the extraordinarily large hump of muscle present to manage the head, the overriding conclusion is that an extremely large and heavy horn was indeed borne upon the frontal bones of Elasmotherium.

Reconstruction of an Elasmotherium skull bearing its immense horn – always assuming that it did possess one! (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Moreover, there is a Palaeolithic cave painting in Rouffignac, France, of a mighty rhinoceros bearing an enormous horn, which is believed by some to represent Elasmotherium (although the horn of this cave painting rhinoceros looks to me more like a typical rhino snout-horn than a brow-borne horn).

The putative Elasmotherium cave painting in Rouffignac

But who knows - perhaps one day a fossil Elasmotherium skeleton will be unearthed that comes complete with its ostensibly real but currently invisible mega-horn. And if that happens, this huge enigmatic rhinoceros's link to the Siberian giant black unicorn will suddenly take a tantalising step closer to veracity.

A couple of black unicorn figurines exhibiting a more typical, familiar unicorn form (© Dr Karl Shuker)

And finally: a snippet of Elasmotherium trivia. One of my favourite television series, a delightful mix of Primeval-style special effects/sci-fi and factual but entertaining Walking With Dinosaurs-style documentary (in what is nowadays popularly termed the 'docu-fiction' genre), was Prehistoric Park. This six-episode UK series, produced by Impossible Pictures (who also produced Walking With Dinosaurs) and originally broadcast in 2006 (first by ITV, then shortly afterwards by Animal Planet), was fronted on-screen by British wildlife presenter Nigel Marven. Its premise was that Nigel would journey back into a wide range of different geological time periods via a space-time portal, encounter various spectacular but long-extinct species, and bring living specimens of them back with him through the portal into the present day, where they would then be exhibited in Prehistoric Park - a vast wildlife park containing a host of different environments and habitats (presumably a nod towards Jurassic Park). One of the most thrilling episodes (#2) saw Nigel saving himself from a highly belligerent male Elasmotherium in Siberia before successfully bringing it back with him through the portal into Prehistoric Park. Indeed, the CGI Elasmotherium was so stunning that it even made the front cover of the series' UK DVD, charging after its suitably-alarmed co-star Nigel!

 Prehistoric Park, the UK DVD (© Impossible Pictures)


Today, 9 July 2014, German cryptozoological correspondent Markus Bühler reminded me of an extremely bizarre Chinese illustration that had appeared in a wonderful book by Herbert Wendt entitled Out of Noah's Ark, published in 1956, in which he chronicled the history of discovery by mankind of our planet's major animal species. In his documentation of the rhinoceros's discovery, Wendt included two remarkable illustrations, both of them by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). The first was of a bizarre Asian unicorn, very different from the traditional Chinese deer-like ki-lin, that sported a tortoise-shell upon its back and a single forward-curving horn upon the back of its head. And the second was of a later version of this same mythical creature, but now as portrayed after the Chinese had carried out their large-scale transportations of southern Asian rhinoceroses. It still retained its tortoise-shell but had now gained no less than three horns. According to Wendt, the two additional ones were derived from the rhinoceros. Yet whereas these were small, but were indeed nasal in location (like rhino horns are), the third (originally the only horn present and sited on the back of its head) was much longer and was now brow-borne (unlike any modern-day rhino horn). Moreover, all three were forward-pointing (just like those of the Chinese quasi-rhino figurine documented by me earlier here), not rearward-pointing as is true of rhino horns.

Consequently, if Wendt is correct in his attribution of the tortoise-shelled unicorn's subsequently-gained trio of horns to the influence of Asian rhinoceros transportation by the Chinese, here is a precedent for rhinos being depicted inaccurately in Oriental art with forward-pointing and brow-borne horns directly comparable to the figurine's. Having said that, however, the tortoise-shelled, triple-horned unicorn had also acquired a second, equally bizarre feature that again  is not typical of rhinoceroses if accurately depicted. As can be seen from the two Hokusai illustrations reproduced below in this present ShukerNature blog article, in its original form the tortoise-shelled unicorn had possessed ungulate hoofs, whereas in its later, triple-horned incarnation these have been replaced by three black claws on each foot. True, rhinos are indeed triple-toed, but they possess clearly-formed hooves, not claws. In contrast, even the Chinese quasi-rhino figurine was hoofed, not claw-footed.

So although intriguing, the tortoise-shelled unicorn's pertinence to the Chinese quasi-rhino figurine's identification as a rhinoceros is far from evident, and it is probably safest merely to say that it can be looked upon as yet another example of just how extremely stylised (or just plain inaccurate) artistic depictions of animals can be.

The earlier depiction of the tortoise-shelled Asian unicorn (top); and the later triple-horned, claw-footed version, believed by Wendt to be the result of having been assigned certain morphological attributes from the rhinoceros (bottom) (Katsushika Hokusai)


  1. Very nice post Dr. Shuker and the Prehistoric Park is true epicness.

  2. Ah, Prehistoric Park. I miss that show :(

    Never knew Elasmotherium's horn has never been found! This blog teaches me something new every day :D

  3. Unknown species of rhinos, long extinct, probably existed and are represented in artistic work from centuries and millennia ago.