Kristin Hugo, Global Animal
Whether or not unicorns truly exist depends greatly on your definition of the word “unicorn.” Is anything with one horn a unicorn? Should it be a horse? Something vaguely equine in shape? Take a look at these real animals that could be considered types of unicorns, and may have even inspired the myth.
Most male and some female antelopes have two horns, but if you were to look at them in profile it might look like they just had one. Sometimes an antelope will lose a horn. These two species are considered particularly unicorn-like.
From a profile, these Arabian Oryxs might be mistaken for a white, one-horned animal.
The Saola is also known as Pseudoryx or the Asian Unicorn.
The Indian Rhinoceros may not seem as enchanting as a unicorn, but they do have a single, centered facial horn. The scientific name for the Indian Rhinoceros is Rhinoceros Unicornis, which means nose-horn one-horn. Additionally, rhinos are related to horses (they both have an odd number of hooves, so they belong to the order perisodactyla.) The horn on a rhino face differs from that of an antelope or bull because there is no bone inside. Instead, the horns are made of keratin. They’re not close enough to breed, but perhaps this means that, if evolution should have gone a little differently, we could encounter an equine with a facial horn.
The Elasmotherium was a rhinoceros relative with a single, long horn in the middle of his face. Although they’re now extinct, some think that they may have lived long enough to have influence unicorn mythology.
Extinct Hooved Animals
There is a lot of biodiversity in the order artiodactyla, or hooved animals with an even number of toes, with such a variety of horn and antler shape and size. Since we do not have a complete fossil record there are many more different species of artiodactyls that we haven’t even discovered which could have resembled the mythical unicorn. Here are a few that come very close.
The Tsaidamotherium was an antelope with two horns, one being much larger than the other.
The procamptoceras is an extinct species of antelope with two horns very close together and covered in a single sheath.
Kubanochoerus is an extinct pig relative with a bony forehead protrusion.
This artist has created reconstructions of a small sampling of prehistoric hooved animals. Bramatherium and Prollbytherium are relatives of the giraffe, Candiacervus is a deer, and Hayoceros and Kyptoceras are relatives of the pronghorn antelope. With all this diversity in headgear, it isn’t hard to imagine that at one point there must have been something resembling a unicorn.
A unicorn may be described as having the head of a horse, body of a goat and the “horn of a narwal.” A narwal, however, does not have a horn but a tooth growing out of the front of his face. It spirals and, unlike horns, is not covered in keratin so it could be white.
This Roe deer lives on a reserve in Italy and has a single antler sprouting from the middle of his head. As opposed to horns, antlers lack the keratin sheath and shed every year. Between the time one antler and another falls off they all will be like unicorns in that way.
Deer actually are often seen with non-typical antlers. This can mean that they have extra tines (branches) or weird placing and shapes. Some have been seen to have an extra, smaller antler or two.
Some humans and other animals form cutaneous horns, which are made of keratin (like your fingernails) but are conical skin tumors. Mostly they are benign, but not always. Pictured here is Wang, a Chinese farmer with a cutaneous horn growing from the back of his head.
In 1933 Dr. D. W. Dove of Maine University took the horn buds from a calf, fused them together, and implanted them back in the calf’s head. When the new, fused horn grew it made the bull look like a unicorn. It looks like he had more concern for making a cool-looking creature than the well-being of a living animal, though. While the initial surgery was a careless experiment, luckily the bull grew up healthy, and even became the leader of the herd. When he challenged other bulls, the unicorn’s centered horn gave him an advantage. Feeling unthreatened, he even became more gentle and docile.
Oberon Zell-Ravenheart was inspired in part by Dove’s unicorn bull to make his own unicorn goats in 1980, four of which toured with Ringling Bros/Barnum & Baily circus. He even applied for a unicorn patent.
The mythical horse-with-a-horn is a beautiful idea; however so are all of these animals. It’s not important to look to mythology to get fantastic animals, just look around. Which one do you like the best?