An essay by Dr. E. Haraldson, presented by Torrey Podmajersky
Illustration by Katie Nyborg
Evidence of carnivorism in Equus ferus unicornus has been widely recorded, but until now neither studied nor explained by science. Unicorns have been credited and blamed with the deaths of animals including wolves, polar bears, wolverines, and humans.
In part because of the rugged, remote terrain of the wild unicorn habitat, researchers had been unsuccessful in making scientifically valid observations of carnivorous behavior in unicorn herds until the pioneering work of Marchand, Dubois, and Clampt in 2009.
The breakthrough occurred north of Canada, when two Arctic unicorns were recorded in the act of killing a polar bear. After dispatching it with their “horns,” they ingested stomach and intestines, then bit off and swallowed several mouthfuls of fur.i
In this paper, we combine original research with unique analysis of historical records, genetics, bacteriology, and dentition. The three modern unicorn herds studied in this research live in Alaska and the Aleutian isles, the ice floes north of the Arctic Circle, and the Northern Isles. Remains of a fourth, ancient population was discovered in the Yakut region of Siberia, and carbon dated to 4000-3800 BCE. Based on this information, we propose a mechanism for carnivorism in unicorns that correlates with all available data.
2. Evolution of Dental Characteristics
2.1. Extraoral Hyperdontia
The basic feature which separates a unicorn from a horse is the single “horn” on its head. However, the characteristic unicorn “horn” is not a true horn, like the horns of oxen or goats. It is instead an extraoral hyperdontia, a tooth growing outside of the mouth.
In the modern unicorn, a single extra tooth and tooth bud grow from the frontal plate of the skull. The most common placement of the tooth (87.7% ± 0.5 of research basis) is right between the eyes, more specifically at the intersection of the vertical line of skull symmetry and the line that connects the centers of the ocular cavities.
2.2. Dental Torsion
Dental torsion is a related but separate mutation that separates Equus ferus unicornus from Equus ferus. Dental torsion refers to the rotation of each tooth perpendicular to the direction of growth. This torsion gives the unicorn “horn” a spiral appearance, and serves to twist each of the unicorn’s teeth into a sharp, serrated line, capable of repeatedly tearing flesh.
2.3. Relationship of genetic testing to dental characteristics
In the three modern unicorn herds, each animal, male and female, had extraoral hyperdontia on the frontal plate of the skull. Dental torsion was apparent in teeth both outside and inside the skull. Each tested individual tested positive on the R U My Horse Genetic Test Kit.ii
In the ancient Yakut remains, evidence of extraoral hyperdontia was found not only on the frontal plate of each skull, but on a variety of skull surfaces. However, regardless of placement of these tooth buds, only specimens that also showed evidence of dental torsion tested positive on the R U My Horse Genetic Test Kit.
3. Digestion and Bacteriologic Characteristics
Equines are so ill equipped to digest animal protein, the possibility of unicorn carnivorism was dismissed until recently as a fairy tale. Wild horse herds show no interest in consuming meat, living on a diet of grasses, herbs, twigs, and leaves. The digestion of vegetable matter requires slow bacterial action (fermentation) in order to extract nutrition. In addition, the structure of the horse’s digestive organs requires a fibrous bulk of vegetation to push matter through the digestive system.
Neither the slow acting digestion nor the requirement for fiber is suited to a meat-based diet, which requires both a constant bacterial population and increased muscular support to impel matter from ingestion to excretion.
3.1. Broad Bacteriological Analysis
After the 2009 confirmation of unicorn carnivorism, interest in the specific bacteriology of horses and unicorns grew. Bacterial colonies prevalent in the different herds demonstrated close alignment with the bacterial population of the digestive organs eaten by the unicorns. Bacterial specimens were extracted from upper and lower digestive organs during veterinary examination of modern unicorns from all geographies.iii
Table 1 shows that unicorn populations in every geography have distinctly different bacteriological profiles from their equine cousins. The differences between captive unicorns and domesticated horses cannot be due to differences in diet, nor to differences in geography.
Table 2 shows much greater similarities between unicorns and their local carnivores than similarities between the other equines in the same geographies.
Table 3 compares bacterial flora across unicorn herds. Note that the Yakut data only indicates similarity for portions of the ancient bacterial sample which could be identified. Much of the excavated sample was unusable for this research.
Because the bacterial colonies found in the stomachs and intestines of each unicorn herd were almost identical to the meat-digesting bacteria found in the digestive systems of carnivores local to each herd, unicorns are capable of carnivorous digestion. The data is strong enough to indicate the finding even without the observation of the behavior.
3.2. Genetic sequencing of bacteriological samples
There is one common bacterial strain found in all three modern geographies, even though they were so geographically separated. The bacterium is genetically different from the bacteria found in other carnivores, and never found in other equines. By itself, this evidence is enough to demonstrate that carnivorous behavior began prior to unicorn diaspora.
But our research probed deeper. With genetic sequencing, our program compared this bacterial strain with the remains of the ancient Yakut unicorn herd. Even though the decay was quite advanced, there were unmistakable similarities in fragments of the genetic sequence.
With these two pieces of data, the origin of the unicorn is confirmed: The natural history of the unicorn, and their carnivorous diet, began in Yakut, Siberia, around six thousand years ago.
4. Documentation of unicorn diaspora
The following report was transcribed from a letter stored with the papers of a noble court in the Northern Isles. Though the source document is unattributed, Hegel and Watts group it with similar reports from the farmer tasked with tracking the wild horse herds and improving the Lord’s stock, usually by live capture of promising horses to be bred into the bloodline.v
This record, written in the early 13th century (CE), sheds light not only on the carnivorous behavior of unicorns, but also their effect on the wolf population. Less importantly, this passage may be the earliest evidence of one of the unicorn’s most popular fictional attributes. A translation follows:
“I pursued the White Stallion into the deep forest. It snowed every day I walked, but the hardship was worth the prize.
“On the fifth day, I heard a high, sharp cry, like a Wolf or a Woman. Then there was a crash, shaking snow from the trees. I took my small Axe and short Sword, and walked toward the noise. Strange things happen in these woods, and I have learned care.
“I came to the edge of a clearing. I could see bright red Blood spattered on the trees and snow. The smell of a fresh kill hung in the air.
“I ran forward, thinking I could scare the Wolves from their meal, even if just for a moment, and dispatch the beast from suffering. I leapt forward, but I stopped, amazed. I hope that my Lord will pardon me, because the rest of my story beggars belief.
“A peasant girl stood there, and the White Stallion stood with her. She turned around and faced me, and I saw the Blood covering her front. But then the Stallion turned, and I spared the girl not another look.
“A great sword of horn stuck out from between its eyes. Blood covered its face. On seeing me, his neck arched like my Lordship’s chariot horse. The Stallion pointed that Sword at me, lowering his head and snorting as the tallest, angriest wild boar that ever walked the woods. Steam rose from its nostrils like he were the Demon himself. I feared for my life for the first time since I became a Man.
“The girl put her hand on its muzzle, and talked to it with the strange tongue they speak in the far North. She rubbed his face, and the Stallion became still. She held his head pressed against her Breast, her cheek cuddled against the great Sword.
“I thought I must be mad. I shook my head to clear my eyes. I noticed the dead Wolf for the first time. Its body still steamed into the air. I believe this Horned Stallion dispatched it, at the bidding of the girl.
“The Stallion, much quieted, reached its snout toward the Wolf’s carcass. It bit into the fur, and wrenched a mouthful from the beast. Blood sprayed again, but the Stallion continued to eat as if the Wolf were merely a bundle of Hay put out for it to graze upon.
“Just then, another peasant found us. He tried to race toward the girl, but the Angry Stallion halted his feet. Once again, however, the girl petted the Horse’s broad face, and spoke into its ear.
“I ordered the girl to bring the Stallion South, to bring to you immediately. But she had an injury from the Wolf, and desired to return to her village. With her control over the Horned Stallion, and not certain I could make myself clear, I walked with them at a safe distance behind the Stallion, who walked with the girl as if led.”
“With my Lord’s permission, I will return to those woods when the Snow has melted. I will bring with me a young girl, unspoilt by the affection of a man. I do not believe there is another way to secure the Horned Stallion.”
This document, until now not included in the canon of unicorn research, gives us not only an historical basis for the legendary affinity of unicorns to girls, it provides a time period in which unicorns were largely unknown and unexpected in the Northern Isles.
4.1. Later Evolution and Interbreeding with Horses
Hundreds of years before Gregor Mendel proposed the genetic theory, horse breeders in the Northern Isles kept meticulous records of their herds. More than eight hundred years of documentation has been preserved, including detailed descriptions of individual mares and stallions. Today, these historical bloodlines still exist, and have been genetically identified and tracked with distinctive markers.
In the days before modern veterinary methods, such as artificial insemination, individual horses had to be sold and transported to participate in the breeding programs. However, travel presents risk: It is a testament to the care taken with these horses that only 11 bloodline horses were recorded stolen, and only 32 escaped.
Computer modeling has compared the genetic indicators of the unicorn herd in the Northern Isles to the escaped and stolen bloodline horses. The record of dates lost, and the genetic map of the horses extant in the bloodline allow the model to indicate at least 16 individual horses–10 mares, 2 stallions, and 4 gender-indeterminable–contributed genetically to the Northern Isle unicorn we know today.
We establish an even more surprising result when the Northern Isle herd and its genetic indicators are compared to the genetic patterns found in more isolated unicorn populations. If the unicorn stallion was accurately described by the Chief Hunter, and if he was truly one of the first in the region, then only one more unicorn–a mare–is required to explain the range of unicorn characteristics observed in the Northern herds.
5.1. Mechanism of carnivorous digestion in unicorns
Carnivorism has been directly verified and bacteriologically related among the three modern geographies. In each direct observation of unicorns in the act of consuming flesh, the unicorn has bitten off and swallowed both roughage and digestive organs of a local carnivore.
Together, the bacteriological and observational data are explained by this hypothesis: Unicorns kill carnivores, and first eat the stomach and intestines of their prey. This behavior populates the native carnivore’s bacteria through their own stomachs and intestines, allowing the unicorn to digest animal protein and fats. By eating the fur of the prey, the unicorn replaces the bulk and roughage necessary for digestion.
Further research is necessary to test this hypothesis.
5.2. Geographic origin of Equus ferus unicornus
Genetic analysis of digestive flora in all known and one ancient unicorn population indicates common ancestry. The earliest known population of unicorn characteristics, verified through modern genetic testing, is the Yakut unicorn remains.
The Northern Isles data gives us the richest resource for the timing of the unicorn diaspora. However, for all the influence the unicorn has had on cultures and ecosystems across the northern continents, it is not only possible but probable that the unicorns of the Northern Isles have only two original unicorn progenitors in their family tree. How the unicorn originally came to the island is, unfortunately, lost to history.
i. X. Marchand, J. Dubois, and T. Clampt, “Recordings of Arctic Unicorn Herd 112B.” Tragically, the researchers who made the breakthrough appear themselves to have become the victims of unicorn predation. The authors wish to note their appreciation for the families of Marchand, Dubois, and Clampt for allowing access to the surviving original recordings. (back)
ii. Genetic testing was made possible by a grant from Genanome, Inc., providers of the commercially available R U My Horse Genetic Test Kit. Genanome, Inc., is a major and continuing sponsor of this research, and maintains an ethics policy that limits their interference in research results. The ethics policy is available at their corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. (back)
iii. E. Chaps, “Summary of Bacteriological Research,” Connecticut Unicorn Institute, 2011. (back)
iv. S. Crystal, “Genetic analysis of proto-unicorn remains in Yakout, Siberia,” Microanatomic Review, 2010. (back)
v. S. Hegel and K. Watts, “Wild Horse Husbandry in the Northern Isles, 1200-1500 c.e.,” Arbishon Press, 2009. (back)
Elizabeth Haraldsen earned her latest doctoral degree from the University of Northern Hamfordenshire for her work studying transitory herbological predation among arthropods. Her work has broadened to other forms of unique predation, especially focusing on evolution of species previously understood to be cryptozoological. Her current research expands beyond her recent focus on living equines to a study of the ectoplasmic Equus ferus ectomortus, commonly known as the “night mare.”
Torrey Podmajersky writes science fiction, fantasy, and stereo instructions for the 21st century. Drawing on experiences from science education to corporate communications, her stories confront the darkness in a relentless search for hope. Published work includes short a short story in Daily Science Fiction, post-apocalyptic anthology Finding Home, and young adult novel Gathering Grace. Torrey lives in Seattle with an antique cat, a new-minted adult, freeloading chickens, and a cutler. Follow her adventures on Twitter: @torreybird.
Katie Nyborg’s art, plus information regarding hiring her, can be found at http://katiedoesartthings.tumblr.com/