The Arabian oryx, which inspired early unicorn myths, made a remarkable recovery from extinction.
Lisa Frank fans, rejoice! The Arabian oryx, the species that may have inspired the original unicorn legends (and millions of psychedelic stickers), teetered on the edge of extinction less than 40 years ago. But just yesterday, the International Union for Conservation of Nature announced that the oryx's threat level would be lowered from "endangered" to "vulnerable" species.
According to the IUCN's latest Red List, an annual update on the health of at-risk species, the Arabian oryx is a true conservation success story. The oryx, which once thrived throughout the Arabian peninsula's most arid lands, was classified "Extinct in the Wild" by the IUCN in the 1970s, and in the 1980s efforts began to breed the oryx in captivity and reintroduce the creature throughout Oman, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the region. A recent survey counts the species at 1,000 strong, a promising figure given its close call with extinction.
The oryx's connection with the unicorn myth can be traced back to the work of Dutch artist Erhard Reuwich, who traveled through the oryx's stomping ground on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the 15th Century. He carved wood blocks of animals he saw along the way, including a unicorn. It might seem odd that the oryx, which has two horns and looks more like a deer than a horse, would be the prototype for a unicorn. But cut Reuwich some slack. When viewed in profile, it's possible that the oryx's two horns would blend into one, especially if the viewer were dehydrated and eager for the Holy Land. (The desert messes with your mind.)
Fun facts aside, this year's Red List brought sobering news as well. Of the 19 amphibians added to the list for the first time, eight are "critically endangered," while 41 percent of amphibians around the world are at risk of extinction.