Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Sarah from IN. Sarah Wonders, “Are unicorns real?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Sarah!
As you skip through fields of flowers on the way to your grandmother's house on the edge of the forest, you pause to take in the sounds of nature all around you. The birds are singing and the bees are buzzing. In the distance, you hear a curious sound. As you approach an area of dense trees, you catch a glimpse of something white and shiny. What could it be? When you reach a clearing, you see a beautiful, horse-like creature with a single horn jutting from its forehead.
You gasp and, when it hears you, it turns to flee. Before it leaps into the air and away into the forest, its mane and tail shimmer and throw rainbow-colored glitter into the air. What is this magical creature you've just seen? It's a unicorn, of course!
If this sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, you're absolutely right! Horse-like creatures with a single horn and magical powers don't really exist in our world today. However, thanks to many myths and legends, unicorns are alive in the imaginations of children all over the world.
So how exactly did such myths and legends get started? Were they based on a unicorn-like creature that lived thousands of years ago? Or are they simply imaginative stories passed down by countless generations?
Historians believe the first written account of a unicorn comes from Greek physician Ctesias in the fourth century, B.C. While traveling through what is now Iran, he heard many tales of sightings of single-horned wild donkeys that were as large as horses. According to Ctesias, these swift and powerful creatures had white bodies, red heads, blue eyes, and a multi-colored horn that was about 18 inches in length.
It's doubtful that Ctesias ever saw one of these creatures. Instead, historians believe his writings merely relay the stories that were told to him by others. He's not the only one to have reported seeing a unicorn throughout history, though. Other famous sightings include those by Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, and Pliny the Elder.
The exact description of the unicorn varies by who is telling the story. Most legends indicate unicorns had magical powers, but the exact powers vary between immortality, the ability to fly, special healing powers, and the ability to neutralize poisons.
Today, scientists believe that the creature described in legends may very well have been the Indian rhinoceros, since it's a powerful beast with one horn. Other creatures, including species of wild ox, the Arabian oryx, and the narwhal, might also have influenced developing myths, such that the unicorn became a mythical creature that was a combination of the traits of many real animals. In fact, some experts believe narwhal horns were often sold as unicorn horn in medieval times.
A recent discovery in an Italian wildlife preserve has scientists also considering a new possibility. Scientists recently discovered an Italian deer with a single horn protruding from its forehead. They believe this unique deer is the result of a rare genetic mutation. Given this new finding, though, some scientists have now started to wonder whether unicorn myths could be the result of a similar rare genetic mutation in a horse-like creature thousands of years ago!