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Researchers solve mammoth evolutionary puzzle: The woollies weren't picky, happy to interbreed

A DNA-based study sheds new light on the complex evolutionary history of the woolly mammoth, suggesting it mated with a completely different and much larger species.

The research, which appears in the BioMed Central's open access journal Genome Biology, found the woolly mammoth, which lived in the cold climate of the Arctic tundra, interbred with the Columbian mammoth, which preferred the more temperate regions of North America and was some 25 per cent larger.

"There is a real fascination with the history of mammoths, and this analysis helps to contextualize its evolution, migration and ecology" says Hendrik Poinar, associate professor and Canada Research Chair in the departments of Anthropology and Biology at McMaster University.

Poinar and his team at the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre, along with colleagues from the United States and France, meticulously sequenced the complete mitochondrial genome of two Columbian mammoths, one found in the Huntington Reservoir in Utah, the other found near Rawlins, Wyoming. They compared these to the first complete mitochrondrial genome of an endemic North American woolly mammoth.

"We are talking about two very physically different 'species' here. When glacial times got nasty, it was likely that woollies moved to more pleasant conditions of the south, where they came into contact with the Columbians at some point in their evolutionary history," he says. "You have roughly 1-million years of separation between the two, with the Columbian mammoth likely derived from an early migration into North American approximately 1.5-million years ago, and their woolly counterparts emigrating to North America some 400,000 years ago."

"We think we may be looking at a genetic hybrid," says Jacob Enk, a graduate student in the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre. "Living African elephant species hybridize where their ranges overlap, with the bigger species out-competing the smaller for mates. This results in mitochondrial genomes from the smaller species showing up in populations of the larger. Since woollies and Columbians overlapped in time and space, it's not unlikely that they engaged in similar behaviour and left a similar signal."

The samples used for the analyses date back approximately 12,000 years. All mammoths became extinct approximately 10,000 years ago except for small isolated populations on islands off the coast of Siberia and Alaska.


Contact: Michelle Donovan
McMaster University

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