The research, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, sheds light on the origin and extinction of the giant, shaggy Ice Age rhinoceros known as the Siberian unicorn because of its extraordinary single horn.
This new genetic evidence overturns previous studies that suggested the Siberian unicorn was a very close relative of the extinct woolly rhino and living Sumatran rhino.
Scientists originally thought that Elasmotherium sibiricum, commonly referred to as "Siberian Unicorn", died out around 100,000 to 200,000 years ago.
In the new study, an global group of scientists collected 23 samples of bones and subjected them to radiocarbon analysis.
Elasmotherium sibiricum, a giant rhino also called the "Siberian unicorn" for its large single horn, has always been thought to have become extinct between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.
The Siberian unicorn was one of the most impressive of these, standing over 2 metres tall and weighing up to 3.5 tonnes.
In partnership with researchers from the Netherlands and Russia, Lister & Co. ended up with 23 dated fossils, all of which "very strongly" confirmed this species survived until at least 39,000 years ago.
"We dated a few specimens - such as the lovely complete skull we have at the Museum - and to our surprise they came in at less than 40,000 years old", Study lead Prof.
"So Elasmotherium sibericum with its apparent extinction date of 100,000 years ago or more has not been considered as part of that same event".
It's unlikely, however, they were hunted into extinction.
Unicorns are real (though not as colorful as we like to imagine), and they lived at the same time as modern humans.
The researchers behind the new study also extracted and analyzed DNA from some of the fossilized specimens, marking the first time that genetic material has been recovered from E. sibiricum. That ancient hominids may have preyed upon these oversized rhinos is not as outrageous a proposition as it may seem. Instead, the researchers suspect that the rhinos struggled because of the fluctuations in the environment. Earth was prone to dramatic climate shifts during this period, producing drought, desertification, a drop in sea levels, and the steady encroachment of glaciers.
The Siberian unicorns existed and later were wiped out. The analyses revealed that the Siberian unicorn that roamed the steppe of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Northern China, was the last surviving member of a unique family of rhinos. Sadly, the same can not be said for the ongoing sixth mass extinction, which is most certainly our fault.