The last woolly mammoths on Earth had disastrous DNA
They were the last mammoths alive, but they weren't that healthy.
Dwarf woolly mammoths that lived on Siberia's Wrangel Island until about 4,000 years ago were plagued by genetic problems, carrying DNA that increased their risk of diabetes, developmental defects and low sperm count, a new study finds.
These mammoths couldn't even smell flowers, the researchers reported.
"I have never been to Wrangel Island, but I am told by people who have that in the springtime, it's just basically covered in flowers," study lead researcher Vincent Lynch, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University at Buffalo in New York, told Live Science. "[The mammoths] probably couldn't smell any of that."
Related: Mammoth resurrection: 11 hurdles to bringing back an ice age beast
Wrangel Island is a peculiarity. The vast majority of woolly mammoths died out at the end of the last ice age, about 10,500 years ago. But because of rising sea levels, a population of woolly mammoths became trapped on Wrangel Island and continued living there until their demise about 3,700 years ago. This population was so isolated and so small that it didn't have much genetic diversity, the researchers wrote in the new study.
Without genetic diversity, harmful genetic mutations likely accumulated as these woolly mammoths inbred, and this "may have contributed to their extinction," the researchers wrote in the study.
The team made the discovery by comparing the DNA of one Wrangel Island mammoth to that of three Asian elephants and two other woolly mammoths that lived in larger populations on the mainland.
"We were lucky in that someone had already sequenced the [Wrangel mammoth's] genome," Lynch said. "So, we just went to a database and downloaded it."
After comparing the mammoths' and elephants' genomes, the researchers found several genetic mutations that were unique to the Wrangel Island population. The team had a company synthesize these tweaked genes; then, the researchers popped those genes into elephant cells in petri dishes. These experiments allowed the researchers to analyze whether the proteins expressed by the Wrangel Island mammoth's genes carried out their duties correctly, by sending the right signals, for instance, in the elephant cells.
The team tested genes involved in neurological development, male fertility, insulin signaling and sense of smell. In a nutshell, the Wrangel Island mammoths were not very healthy, the researchers found, as none of those genes carried out their tasks correctly.
That said, the study looked at only one Wrangel Island mammoth, so it's possible that this individual's comrades didn't have similar genes. But "it's probably unlikely that it was just this one individual that had these defects," Lynch said.
In fact, the case of the Wrangel Island mammoths is a cautionary tale about what can happen to a population that is too small and therefore lacks genetic diversity, he said.
The findings build on those from a study published in 2017 in the journal PLOS Genetics that found that the Wrangel Island mammoth population was accumulating damaging mutations.
The new study was published online Feb. 7 in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution.
- Photos: A 40,000-year-old mammoth autopsy
- In photos: Mummified woolly mammoth discovered
- Photos: Ice age mammoth unearthed in Idaho
Originally published on Live Science.
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Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.
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I'm not able to find my copy of a Life magazine article on that fast-freeze woolly mammoth subject. For some odd reason google won't list it in search results so I can find it. I remember delivering a speech on it in college in about 1990 and had photocopied the article from a Life magazine dated in the early '60s (maybe late 1950s if I my life depended on having that date correct).
I would love to see the article you mentioned from Life magazine.
Just one of them:
Even though this article makes it sound like these finds are rare, they really aren't
I was fascinated to learn that some mammoths died standing up - I'd never heard of it before. Could you provide some links to the stories? And were their bodies found complete, given that skeletons typically disarticulate after death? Were the mammoths in that case killed standing up and mummified in that position? I'd really like to find out more about this subject.
This particular article refers to an isolated population that survived very late - I'm assuming though I admit I didn't bother to check - rather later than the big freeze events that caught full-sized mammoths standing with fresh greens in their bellies. So it's not an either-or matter. Different populations of mammoths died out at different times for different reasons. They're still all gone now.
old publications of pseudo science are not worthy of discussion in a presentation of factual info