Date:

DNA proves mammoths mated beyond species boundaries

Several species of mammoth are thought to have roamed across the North American continent. A new study in the open-access journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, provides DNA evidence to show that these mammoths, which should only mate within their species boundaries, were in fact likely to be interbreeding.

A species can be defined as a group of similar animals that can successfully breed and produce fertile offspring. By using differences in the size and shape of their fossilized teeth, a number of North American mammoth species have been identified. But, some scientists are not confident this method of species categorization tells the whole story.

- Advertisement -

“Species boundaries can be very blurry. We might find differences in features of the teeth or skeleton that closely correspond to what we think are real species boundaries. But other features may not correspond to those boundaries, suggesting that what we formerly regarded as separate species are in fact not at all,” explains Hendrik Poinar, a Professor at McMaster University in Canada, who co-led the new study with his former graduate student Jake Enk and collaborator Ross MacPhee, a Professor at the American Museum of Natural History.

Professor Poinar and his co-authors used cutting-edge methods to distinguish species of North American mammoths. Tiny samples of fossilized mammoth bone, teeth and feces, were generously donated by a number of museums across America and Canada. DNA was extracted from these samples in a specialized laboratory of the Ancient DNA center at the McMaster University, and used to create a family tree of their evolution. The results proved to be very interesting.

North American mammoths such as the Columbian and Woolly Mammoths were historically thought to originate from two separate primitive species. However, this latest DNA analysis agrees with a more recent idea that all North American mammoths originated from a single primitive species, the Steppe Mammoth.

“Individuals of the Woolly and Columbian mammoths look like they represent different species in terms of their molar teeth, but their genetics say that they were not completely separate in the evolutionary sense and could successfully interbreed,” says Professor MacPhee.

- Advertisement -

Professor Poinar continues, “Mammoths were much better at adapting to new habitats than we first thought — we suspect that subgroups of mammoths evolved to deal with local conditions, but maintained genetic continuity by encountering and potentially interbreeding with each other where their two different habitats met, such as at the edge of glaciers and ice sheets.”

So, while mammoths clearly evolved differences in their physical appearance to deal with different environments, it did not prohibit them from cross-breeding and producing healthy offspring.

Despite this apparent adaptability, which should surely be a recipe for success, mammoths disappeared from the face of the Earth 10,000 years ago. “Humans are suspected to be the cause, but this is not by any means proven. Explaining the loss of mammoths and a host of other Ice Age creatures continues to be a fascinating conundrum in paleobiology,” concludes Professor MacPhee.

As well as challenging the classic method of defining a species, the authors believe the findings of this study are just the start of understanding mammoth evolutionary history. Techniques to extract and analyze ancient DNA have undergone a tremendous improvement in recent years and as these technologies continue to improve we can expect further breakthroughs.

THE FRONTIERS

- Advertisement -
spot_img
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
spot_img

Mobile Application

spot_img

Related Articles

Labyrinthine structure discovered from the Minoan civilisation

Archaeologists have discovered a monumental labyrinthine structure on the summit of Papoura Hill in Crete.

Dragon sculpture found on the Jiankou section of the Great Wall of China

Archaeologists conducting restoration works on the Jiankou section of the Great Wall of China have discovered an ornate dragon sculpture.

Waters at Roman Bath may have super healing properties

A new study, published in the Microbe journal, has uncovered a diverse array of microorganisms in the geothermal waters at Roman Bath that may have super healing properties.

9,000-year-old Neolithic stone mask unveiled

A rare stone mask from the Neolithic period has been unveiled for the first time by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Archaeologists recover two medieval grave slabs from submerged shipwreck

Underwater archaeologists from Bournemouth University have recovered two medieval grave slabs from a shipwreck off the coast of Dorset, England.

Study confirms palace of King Ghezo was site of voodoo blood rituals

A study, published in the journal Proteomics, presents new evidence to suggest that voodoo blood rituals were performed at the palace of King Ghezo.

Archaeologists search for home of infamous Tower of London prisoner

A team of archaeologists are searching for the home of Sir Arthur Haselrig, a leader of the Parliamentary opposition to Charles I, and whose attempted arrest sparked the English Civil War.

Tartessian plaque depicting warrior scenes found near Guareña

Archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology of Mérida (IAM) and the CSIC have uncovered a slate plaque depicting warrior scenes at the Casas del Turuñuelo archaeological site.