Woolly mammoths die lingering death

2015-04-23 22:43
Wooly mammoth in British Columbia museum.

Wooly mammoth in British Columbia museum.

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Washington - The most complete genetic information assembled on woolly mammoths is providing insight into their demise, revealing they suffered two population crashes before a final, severely inbred group succumbed on an Arctic Ocean island.

Scientists unveiled on Thursday the first two full genomes of these mighty elephant relatives emblematic of the Ice Age, showing they experienced an extensive loss of genetic diversity before perishing roughly 4 000 years ago.

Well-preserved DNA came from two mammoths: a 45 000-year-old calf carcass from Siberia, and a 4 300-year-old molar from a mammoth in the last population isolated on remote Wrangel Island, off the Russian mainland. Inbreeding was detected in the Wrangel Island mammoth.

"The individual from Wrangel Island, which was one of the last surviving woolly mammoths in the world, had a much lower genetic variation compared to the other, more ancient individual," said Swedish Museum of Natural History geneticist Love Dalén.

"The reason for this difference is that the Wrangel individual's genome contained a large number of tracts with no variation at all, which is a pattern that is typical in very small populations where most matings occur between distant relatives."

The woolly mammoth, about the size of today's elephants but with long brown fur and colossal tusks, first appeared 700 000 years ago in Siberia, expanding through northern Eurasia and North America. Whether their extinction resulted from a warming climate or human hunting remains hotly debated.

Harvard Medical School geneticist Eleftheria Palkopoulou said the genomes indicated two major population crashes: one around 280 000 years ago from which the population recovered, and a second about 12 000 years ago, near the Ice Age's end, from which it did not.

After the second one, an estimated 300 to 1 000 mammoths survived. A small Wrangel Island population existed for about 6 000 years after all mainland mammoths had died. The inbreeding probably harmed the population's viability and contributed to its extinction, Dalén said.

The researchers acknowledged the genomes could guide efforts by others to resurrect the mammoth through cloning, creating a mammoth embryo in a lab and using an elephant as a surrogate mother.

"Before answering whether this will be feasible in the near future there are important ethical questions that need to be considered first," Palkopoulou said. "How many mammoths would be needed to sustain a viable population? Wouldn't resources be better used to conserve living species and sustain their habitats?"

The research appears in the journal Current Biology.

Read more on:    animals

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.