A large genetic study of the extinct woolly mammoth has revealed that the species was not one large homogenous group, as scientists previously had assumed, and that it did not have much genetic diversity. "The population was split into two groups, then one of the groups died out 45,000 years ago, long before the first humans began to appear in the region," said Stephan C. Schuster, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University and a leader of the research team. "This discovery is particularly interesting because it rules out human hunting as a contributing factor, leaving climate change and disease as the most probable causes of extinction." The discovery will be published later this week in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The research marks the first time scientists have dissected the structure of an entire population of extinct mammal by using the complete mitochondrial genome -- all the DNA that makes up all the genes found in the mitochondria structures within cells. Data from this study will enable testing of the new hypothesis presented by the team, that there were two groups of woolly mammoth -- a concept that previously had not been recognized from studies of the fossil record.
The scientists analyzed the genes in hair obtained from individual woolly mammoths -- an extinct species of elephant adapted to living in the cold environment of the northern hemisphere. The bodies of these mammoths were found throughout a wide swathe of northern Siberia. Their dates of death span roughly 47,000 years, ranging from about 13,000 years ago to about 60,000 years ago.
Schuster and Webb Miller, professor of biology and computer science and engineering at Penn State, led the international research team, which includes Thomas Gilbert at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and other scientists in Australia, Belgium, France, Ital
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