Animals Biology Oceanography 

Search for the Unicorn—Slightly Off-Center

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By Mark Lasbury, MS, MSEd, PhD

@ Biologuy1

Zootopia opened in movie theaters on March 4 and is on track to be another Disney classic. Among all the animals featured in this feature, you probably recall a few sporting horns. But did you happen to spot any unicorns?

Mythical Unicorns

The earliest writings that describe unicorns were those of the Greek writer Ctesias, in the late fifth century BCE. He described the Indian ass, an animal with a white, strong body and perhaps a red head from which sprung a long single horn of red, white, and black. Ctesias believed that a cup made from its horn could neutralize any poison.

There are real animals with one horn, like the unicorn leatherjacket fish, and the Indian rhinoceros. The rhinoceros beetle has one big horn and fairly large part of his jaw below, so I do not know if he counts.

Four hundred and fifty years later, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder also wrote about very strong animals with a single horn protruding from their forehead. He described an oryx (an antelope with a single horn), an Indian ox (probably a rhinoceros, whose name comes from the Greek rhinós, nose, and kerás, horn), and the same Indian ass with a horse-like build and a single horn.

unicorn, rhino, narwhal
This rhino has had its horn removed to protect it from would-be poachers. Photo copyright Science Connected.

Pliny wrote that, “The unicorn (from the Latin uni, one, and cornus, horn) is the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead. Its cry is a deep bellow.” Uh-huh. That doesn’t sound much like an antelope or a rhino, so I guess he meant the Indian ass. 

Unicorn leatherjacket fish, image courtesy of Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr, CC by 2.0
Unicorn leatherjacket fish, Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr, CC 2.0.
Rhinoceros beetle, photo by Carla Kishinami
Rhinoceros beetle, photo by Carla Kishinami

Romans traded long spiral tusks, but no one was telling where exactly they had come from. These horns were snow white with a tight spiral. As a result of these horns, the mythical unicorn in the West settled down to be a pure white horse with a very long, pure-white, spiraled horn. This is the image we generally see in tapestries and illustrations.

Kirin Beer from Japan uses a unicorn (kirin) as its logo. Look closely and you can see the single horn on its head. Photo by Ekkun via Flickr, CC 2.0.
Kirin Beer from Japan uses a unicorn (kirin) as its logo. Look closely and you can see the single horn on its head. Photo by Ekkun via Flickr, CC 2.0.

In the Far East there were unicorns as well. Known as the qilin (pronounced chee-lin) in China and as the kirin in Japan, it was a benevolent animal, with shiny scales like a dragon and one or perhaps two horns. It avoided fighting and walked so softly that it would not disturb or harm a blade of grass. An animal like this (probably the saola) is most likely the one referred to in stories in North Korea. In 2012, North Korea announced that its archeologists discovered a unicorn lair. Yeah.

Very Real Narwhals

However, back to the real world. Most likely, those horns in the Roman markets were narwhal tusks, as discussed in a 2011 paper. It is very likely that the narwhal played into the unicorn legend, as their tusks could be offered as concrete proof of “unicorn” existence.

The narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is an amazing animal that abandoned bilateral symmetry. In fact, monodon means one tooth, and monoceros means one horn; a pretty accurate name, all in all.

Narwhals are a species of whale, meaning that they are mammals. They live way up north. From the Baffin Bay, around Greenland, to the north of Russia, they swim in pods of 10-100, but you’ll rarely see them even if you live near there. There are perhaps 45,000-50,000 narwhals today.

This is a steady number because it is so hard to get to where they live. Consequently, narwhals have not been hunted to extinction. They spend a lot of their time on deep dives under the ice floes, so they are not seen often. No narwhal has ever been seen feeding. We only know what they eat from examining stomach contents.

Narwhal Tusks Are Teeth

Their most distinctive feature is the long tusk (up to 10 ft, or 3 m) on the males. Just one tusk, mind you, like a unicorn horn. The narwhal’s tusk—like the elephant’s, walrus’s or warthog’s tusks—is a tooth.

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