An Ultimate Guide to Elasmotherium: The Plated Beast

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 24th September 2023

NameElasmotherium DietHerbivorous 
Name MeaningLaminated beastHeight2.5 meters (8 feet 2 inches)
PronunciationEe-laz-muh-THEER-ee-umLength5 meters (16 feet) 
EraCenozoic– Quaternary PeriodWeight3.5–5 tons (7,000–10,000 lbs)
ClassificationMammalia, Perissodactyla, RhinocerotidaeLocation Europe and Asia

Elasmotherium Pictures

Elasmotherium | Vac1 via iStock

The Elasmotherium

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Elasmotherium Concept
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Elasmotherium Concept

Elasmotherium is an extinct rhinoceros genus that lived in Eurasia from the Late Miocene to the Pleistocene Epoch. 

It was alive until about 39,000 years ago. 

The five species of rhinos in the Elasmotherium genus are among the 250 different species of rhinoceros that once existed in various regions of the world, and they were arguably the most impressive of them. 

Today, only about five species of rhinos exist, and they’re only distantly related to the Elasmotherium.

One species, Elasmotherium sibiricum, has been nicknamed the Siberian unicorn due to the massive single horn growing out of its head. 

In fact, the tales of the unicorn may have been based on the Elasmotherium, which lived alongside humans in some parts of Eurasia during the Pleistocene. 

E. sibiricum skull cast at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
E. sibiricum skull cast at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin | FunkMonk via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The first description of the Elasmotherium was published by Paleontologist Gotthelf Fischer von Waldheim in 1809. 

The description was based on bones of unknown origin. 

Since then, numerous additional fossils have been discovered in hundreds of find sites across Europe and Asia. 

These fossils have made it possible for scientists to reconstruct the likely appearance of the Elasmotherium

In this article, we’ll discuss some of the most fascinating facts about one of the most impressive megafauna of the Pleistocene Epoch.

Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Plush Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Plush Collection

Physical Characteristics

A true ice-age giant, Elasmotherium was a massive prehistoric mammal. 

It is often reconstructed with a similar appearance to modern rhinos but with some remarkable differences. 

Elasmotherium was a stocky beast with a barrel-shaped body. 

Elasmotherium 3D illustration
Elasmotherium 3D illustration | Warpaintcobra via iStock

It had thick and strong limbs to support its massive weight. 

The front limbs of this rhinoceros were likely slightly longer than the hind limbs. 

This, coupled with the fact that it had a massive hump on its back, gave the Elasmotherium a sort of hunched appearance.

Elasmotherium is considered one of the largest members of the rhinoceros family.

It is comparable in size to other massive ice-age mammals, such as the wooly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros

The most popular species in the genus (E. sibiricum) grew to an average length of about 4.5 meters (15 feet), but it wasn’t the largest member of the genus. 

E. caucasicum was the largest, reaching a length of at least five meters (16 feet). 

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Elasmotherium Concept
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Elasmotherium Concept

The Elasmotherium stood at a shoulder height of about two meters (6 feet 7 inches) and weighed as much as 4.5 tonnes on average. 

Based on these size estimates, the Elasmotherium was significantly larger than most modern rhinoceros species. 

The most distinctive feature of Elasmotherium was the long, single horn on its forehead. 

Although modern rhinos also have a massive horn, the horn is positioned higher on the Elasmotherium face, which is why the ancient rhino is often compared to the mythical unicorn.  

This horn could reach impressive lengths of up to 6.6 feet (two meters) or more. 

The horn’s size is estimated based on an odd bony dome on the front of Elasmotherium’s skull.

Illustration of a Skull of Elasmotherium
Illustration of a Skull of Elasmotherium | Nastasic via iStock

The dome was up to 13 centimeters (five inches) deep and had a circumference of about 90 centimeters (three feet). 

This large dome was most likely an anchoring point for the rhino’s massive horn. 

However, the real horn of this ice-age beast isn’t known. 

It had a bony core but was covered with a keratinous sheath known to decompose fast. 

As a result, no Elasmotherium fossils have been found with an intact horn, which makes estimates of the rhino’s horn size a little unreliable. 

This giant rhino is often reconstructed with a woolly coat. 

This is consistent with other ice-age megafauna such as the woolly rhinoceros and mammoth. 

However, it is also possible that the Elasmotherium was bare-skinned like modern rhinoceroses.  

Habitat and Distribution

Elasmotherium lived across different regions of Eurasia from the Miocene to the Pleistocene Epoch, approximately 2.6 million to about 36,000 years ago. 

The rhino had a vast geographic range that covered parts of present-day Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Mongolia, and China.

From the distribution of the Elasmotherium’s fossil, this giant rhino seems to have been well-adapted to a wide range of habitats. 

But it was mostly associated with open grasslands and semi-arid steppes. 

These environments would have provided an abundance of grasses and herbaceous plants that formed the bulk of the Elasmotherium’s diet. 

Restoration of E. sibiricum in a steppe environment
Restoration of E. sibiricum in a steppe environment | DiBgd via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The Late Miocene and early Pleistocene epochs were characterized by significant fluctuations in climate.

The climate was characterized by a major cooling trend interspersed by warmer periods. 

To adapt to these fluctuations, Elasmotherium likely demonstrated some degree of habitat flexibility. 

It probably adapted to more forested areas or even rocky terrains instead of the plain grasslands it was used to, depending on the availability of food and water.

Behavior and Diet

Elasmotherium was a large, heavy-set animal. 

Based on the stocky build of this rhino, it was probably not a particularly fast runner. 

The quadrupedal beast moved on all fours at a slow to moderate pace.

Elasmotherium on the move
Elasmotherium on the move | Vac1 via iStock

The Elasmotherium’s legs were strong and thick, which was necessary to support the rhino’s massive weight. 

The limbs were similar to that of the white rhinoceros, known to reach an average running speed of about 30 kilometers per hour (19 miles per hour) and a top speed of about 40 to 45 kilometers per hour (25–28 miles per hour).

But given the fact that the Elasmotherium is double the size of a white rhino, it was probably slower.

It was still a relatively agile animal over short distances, but its size would have limited its overall mobility.

There is little direct evidence to explain the social behavior of Elasmotherium

However, like many modern rhinoceros species, the Elasmotherium was likely a solitary animal, at least during certain stages of its life. 

Adult males were probably solitary. 

Females, on the other hand, might form loose associations with their female offspring. 

Elasmotherium herd grazing
Elasmotherium herd grazing | Stocktrek Images via GettyImages

Elasmotherium was a herbivore, which means it primarily consumed plant material.

Its diet likely consisted of various grasses, herbs, shrubs, and other vegetation available in the open grasslands and semi-arid steppes where it lived. 

Given its size, this rhino probably had a high daily food intake. 

Elasmotherium likely obtained food through a grazing habit similar to modern white rhinos.

These rhinos had heads oriented downwards, which means they were limited to low-lying plants.

In fact, due to the massive hum on its back, the head of Elasmotherium had an even lower orientation, meaning it must have grazed habitually. 

Like other rhinos, the Elasmotherium’s dentition included two premolars and three molars that were used for chewing. 

They had no incisors or canines for cropping plants. Instead, they used their prehensile lip to strip food.

Elasmotherium were hypsodonts, meaning they had large tooth crowns and enamel that extended below the gum line. 

Life Cycle

Elasmotherium preparing to charge
Elasmotherium preparing to charge | Image via StockTrek Images

Elasmotherium, like modern rhinoceroses, was a viviparous mammal. 

This means they gave birth to live offspring, which the mother carried in its belly.

Male Elasmotherium may have engaged in a wide range of reproductive behavior, including competition for mating rights. 

They probably used their horns for dominance displays or direct conflict between males for mating rights with the female. 

Female Elasmotherium carried their offspring inside their bodies until birth.

Juvenile Elasmotherium would have been relatively vulnerable after birth.

Restoration of E. sibiricum
Restoration of E. sibiricum | ДиБгд via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

They were probably capable of moving around shortly after birth but still needed maternal care and protection until they reached maturity.

At maturity, males probably moved off to lead a solitary life while females remained with their mothers.

Determining the exact lifespan of Elasmotherium is difficult because there’s no direct fossil evidence for this. 

However, as a large and robust mammal, it may have had a relatively long lifespan compared to smaller animals.

Evolution and History

Elasmotherium belongs to the family Rhinocerotidae, a group that includes modern-day rhinoceroses. 

The evolutionary history of this prehistoric rhino can be traced to the same common ancestors as the modern rhinos and other extinct rhinoceros species. 

E. caucasicum reconstructed without hair 
E. caucasicum reconstructed without hair | E. caucasicum reconstructed without hair via Wikipedia CC BY 3.0

Generally, the rhinoceros family is divided into two subfamilies, namely, Rhinocerotinae and Elasmotheriinae.

These two families diverged from the same common ancestor about 43 to 35 million years ago. 

Most members of the Elasmotheriinae subfamily went extinct before the Miocene Epoch as the forests of the Early Cenozoic gave way to savannas. 

Elasmotherium primigenium, which is the oldest Elasmotherium species, emerged in the Shaanxi region of China during the Miocene Epoch about 2.6 million years ago. 

The direct ancestor of the Elasmotherium was probably the Sinotherium, an elasmothere rhino genus that also lived in China. 

Sinotherium also had a single large similar to that of the Elasmotherium

Gage Beasley's Elasmotherium Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Elasmotherium Stuffed Plush Toy

The first occurrence of Elasmotherium in Eastern Europe dates back to roughly 2.5 million years ago. 

The emergence of the Elasmotherium marks the transition from nasal-horned rhinos to frontal-horned ones. 

One of the major evolutionary adaptations developed by this rhino is hypsodonty. 

This is a dentition pattern where the crowns and enamel of the molars extend below the gum line. 

This was probably an adaptation for chewing tough, fibrous grass that was abundant in its habitat. 

Interactions With Other Species

Little is known about the interaction between the Elasmotherium and other animals in its ecosystem.

Herd of Elasmotherium's approach a prehistoric river
A herd of Elasmotherium approach a prehistoric river | Corey Ford via GettyImages

Given its size, this ancient rhino was probably too big for any of the predator species in Eurasia during the Pleistocene Epoch to take on. 

The terrestrial ecosystems of Eurasia during the Pleistocene were dominated by large and powerful canids, hyenas (Chasmaporthetes & Pliocrocuta), and large felids such as Megantereon and Panthera

While these carnivores were adapted to taking down large mammals in their ecosystem, a healthy adult Elasmotherium would have posed a significant challenge. 

Humans (both Neanderthals and modern humans) also shared the ecosystem with the Elasmotherium

So far, no archeological evidence has been found for the interaction between both groups, but it is possible that humans hunted this ancient rhino. 

Cultural Significance

First published restoration (1878) of E. sibiricum | Rashevsky via Wikipedia Public Domain

Since Elasmotherium was alive until relatively recently, it is a well-known animal both to paleontologists and the general public. 

The distinct appearance of this rhino may have inspired folklore and legends about the unicorn. 

Lores about other mythical horned beasts similar in appearance to the Elasmotherium are quite abundant across various cultures in Europe. 

An example of this is the Indrik, commonly mentioned in ancient Russian literature and a similar animal known in Persian and Indian cultures. 

These stories may have been passed across via word of mouth throughout medieval Europe. 

Over time, the facts may have become distorted enough to give birth to what is known today as the majestic one-horned horse called the unicorn. 

This doesn’t in any way limit the scientific significance of the Elasmotherium

Fossils of this ancient beast provide valuable materials for scientists investigating the evolution of rhinoceros, the ecosystems of the Pleistocene Epoch as well the interaction of ancient megafauna like the Elasmotherium

The massive horn of Elasmotherium
The massive horn of Elasmotherium | CoreyFord via GettyImages

In fact, one of the most notable aspects of this dinosaur’s appearance (its massive horn) has been contested by scientists. 

A study proposing a smaller size for the Elasmotherium’s horn was published in 2021. 

Instead of the current towering horn of this rhino, the study proposes a smaller and slightly curved horn that extends slightly beyond the skull dome. 

This small horn theory was proposed because the Elasmotherium’s skull dome appears to be too fragile to support such a massive horn. 

Without additional evidence, it’ll be difficult to refute or confirm the nature of the Elasmotherium’s skull. 

For now, it remains the Siberian unicorn until new evidence, such as well-preserved Elasmotherium mummies or cave drawings depicting the beast in its full glory, is uncovered.


Elasmotherium is a genus of prehistoric rhinoceros that lived in Eurasia from the Late Miocene to the Pleistocene Epoch. 

It went extinct about 26,000 years ago, making it one of the last megafauna to disappear after the last ice age. 

Elasmotherium was the last surviving member of the Elasmotheriinae subfamily.  

It is a significantly bigger modern rhinoceros species but wasn’t remarkably different in appearance and habits. 

The most distinctive feature of this rhinoceros was the single large horn that protruded out of its face. 

The unicorn-like skull of the Elasmotherium may have inspired tales of the unicorn and other similar mythical creatures. 

The discovery of this dinosaur has also helped scientists to better understand the evolutionary journey of modern rhinos and their relationship with their prehistoric ancestors. 


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