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Concept: Woolly mammoth


Accounts of woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) preserved so well in ice that their meat is still edible have a long history of intriguing the public and influencing paleontological thought on Quaternary extinctions and climate, with some scientists resorting to catastrophism to explain the instantaneous freezing necessary to preserve edible meat. Famously, members of The Explorers Club purportedly dined on frozen mammoth from Alaska, USA, in 1951. This event, well received by the press and general public, became an enduring legend for the Club and popularized the notorious annual tradition of serving rare and exotic food at Club dinners that continues to this day. The Yale Peabody Museum holds a sample of meat preserved from the 1951 meal, interestingly labeled as a South American giant ground sloth (Megatherium), not mammoth. We sequenced a fragment of the mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene and studied archival material to verify its identity, which if genuine, would extend the range of Megatherium over 600% and alter our views on ground sloth evolution. Our results indicate that the meat was not mammoth or Megatherium but green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). The prehistoric dinner was likely an elaborate publicity stunt. Our study emphasizes the value of museums collecting and curating voucher specimens, particularly those used for evidence of extraordinary claims.

Concepts: Megafauna, Green turtle, Georges Cuvier, Mammoth, Woolly mammoth, Wrangel Island, Pleistocene mammals, Pleistocene megafauna


Relict woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) populations survived on several small Beringian islands for thousands of years after mainland populations went extinct. Here we present multiproxy paleoenvironmental records to investigate the timing, causes, and consequences of mammoth disappearance from St. Paul Island, Alaska. Five independent indicators of extinction show that mammoths survived on St. Paul until 5,600 ± 100 y ago. Vegetation composition remained stable during the extinction window, and there is no evidence of human presence on the island before 1787 CE, suggesting that these factors were not extinction drivers. Instead, the extinction coincided with declining freshwater resources and drier climates between 7,850 and 5,600 y ago, as inferred from sedimentary magnetic susceptibility, oxygen isotopes, and diatom and cladoceran assemblages in a sediment core from a freshwater lake on the island, and stable nitrogen isotopes from mammoth remains. Contrary to other extinction models for the St. Paul mammoth population, this evidence indicates that this mammoth population died out because of the synergistic effects of shrinking island area and freshwater scarcity caused by rising sea levels and regional climate change. Degradation of water quality by intensified mammoth activity around the lake likely exacerbated the situation. The St. Paul mammoth demise is now one of the best-dated prehistoric extinctions, highlighting freshwater limitation as an overlooked extinction driver and underscoring the vulnerability of small island populations to environmental change, even in the absence of human influence.

Concepts: Climate change, Extinction, Megafauna, Mammoth, Woolly mammoth, Wrangel Island, Dwarf elephant, Pleistocene megafauna


Woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) populated Siberia, Beringia, and North America during the Pleistocene and early Holocene. Recent breakthroughs in ancient DNA sequencing have allowed for complete genome sequencing for two specimens of woolly mammoths (Palkopoulou et al. 2015). One mammoth specimen is from a mainland population 45,000 years ago when mammoths were plentiful. The second, a 4300 yr old specimen, is derived from an isolated population on Wrangel island where mammoths subsisted with small effective population size more than 43-fold lower than previous populations. These extreme differences in effective population size offer a rare opportunity to test nearly neutral models of genome architecture evolution within a single species. Using these previously published mammoth sequences, we identify deletions, retrogenes, and non-functionalizing point mutations. In the Wrangel island mammoth, we identify a greater number of deletions, a larger proportion of deletions affecting gene sequences, a greater number of candidate retrogenes, and an increased number of premature stop codons. This accumulation of detrimental mutations is consistent with genomic meltdown in response to low effective population sizes in the dwindling mammoth population on Wrangel island. In addition, we observe high rates of loss of olfactory receptors and urinary proteins, either because these loci are non-essential or because they were favored by divergent selective pressures in island environments. Finally, at the locus of FOXQ1 we observe two independent loss-of-function mutations, which would confer a satin coat phenotype in this island woolly mammoth.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Population ecology, Mammoth, Woolly mammoth, Wrangel Island, Dwarf elephant, Pleistocene megafauna


Extinction of the woolly mammoth in Beringia has long been subject to research and speculation. Here we use a new geo-referenced database of radiocarbon-dated evidence to show that mammoths were abundant in the open-habitat of Marine Isotope Stage 3 (∼45-30 ka). During the Last Glacial Maximum (∼25-20 ka), northern populations declined while those in interior Siberia increased. Northern mammoths increased after the glacial maximum, but declined at and after the Younger Dryas (∼12.9-11.5 ka). Remaining continental mammoths, now concentrated in the north, disappeared in the early Holocene with development of extensive peatlands, wet tundra, birch shrubland and coniferous forest. Long sympatry in Siberia suggests that humans may be best seen as a synergistic cofactor in that extirpation. The extinction of island populations occurred at ∼4 ka. Mammoth extinction was not due to a single cause, but followed a long trajectory in concert with changes in climate, habitat and human presence.

Concepts: Climate, Extinction, Pleistocene, Holocene, Younger Dryas, Little Ice Age, Mammoth, Woolly mammoth


Woolly mammoths and living elephants are characterized by major phenotypic differences that have allowed them to live in very different environments. To identify the genetic changes that underlie the suite of woolly mammoth adaptations to extreme cold, we sequenced the nuclear genome from three Asian elephants and two woolly mammoths, and we identified and functionally annotated genetic changes unique to woolly mammoths. We found that genes with mammoth-specific amino acid changes are enriched in functions related to circadian biology, skin and hair development and physiology, lipid metabolism, adipose development and physiology, and temperature sensation. Finally, we resurrected and functionally tested the mammoth and ancestral elephant TRPV3 gene, which encodes a temperature-sensitive transient receptor potential (thermoTRP) channel involved in thermal sensation and hair growth, and we show that a single mammoth-specific amino acid substitution in an otherwise highly conserved region of the TRPV3 channel strongly affects its temperature sensitivity.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Gene, Genetics, Genome, Elephantidae, Mammoth, Woolly mammoth


Near the end of the Pleistocene epoch, populations of the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) were distributed across parts of three continents, from western Europe and northern Asia through Beringia to the Atlantic seaboard of North America. Nonetheless, questions about the connectivity and temporal continuity of mammoth populations and species remain unanswered. We use a combination of targeted enrichment and high-throughput sequencing to assemble and interpret a data set of 143 mammoth mitochondrial genomes, sampled from fossils recovered from across their Holarctic range. Our dataset includes 54 previously unpublished mitochondrial genomes and significantly increases the coverage of the Eurasian range of the species. The resulting global phylogeny confirms that the Late Pleistocene mammoth population comprised three distinct mitochondrial lineages that began to diverge ~1.0-2.0 million years ago (Ma). We also find that mammoth mitochondrial lineages were strongly geographically partitioned throughout the Pleistocene. In combination, our genetic results and the pattern of morphological variation in time and space suggest that male-mediated gene flow, rather than large-scale dispersals, was important in the Pleistocene evolutionary history of mammoths.

Concepts: Evolution, Europe, Pleistocene, Mammoth, Woolly mammoth, Wrangel Island, Dwarf elephant, Pleistocene megafauna


Mammals as a rule have seven cervical vertebrae, a number that remains remarkably constant. Changes of this number are associated with major congenital abnormalities (pleiotropic effects) that are, at least in humans, strongly selected against. Recently, it was found that Late Pleistocene mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) from the North Sea have an unusually high incidence of abnormal cervical vertebral numbers, approximately ten times higher than that of extant elephants. Abnormal numbers were due to the presence of large cervical ribs on the seventh vertebra, indicating a homeotic change from a cervical rib-less vertebra into a thoracic rib-bearing vertebra. The high incidence of cervical ribs indicates a vulnerable condition and is thought to be due to inbreeding and adverse conditions that may have impacted early pregnancies in declining populations. In this study we investigated the incidence of cervical ribs in another extinct Late Pleistocene megaherbivore from the North Sea and the Netherlands, the woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis). We show that the incidence of abnormal cervical vertebral numbers in the woolly rhinoceros is unusually high for mammals (15,6%, n = 32) and much higher than in extant Rhinoceratidae (0%, n = 56). This indicates that woolly rhinoceros lived under vulnerable conditions, just like woolly mammoths. The vulnerable condition may well have contributed to their eventual extinction.

Concepts: Vertebra, Extinction, Cervical vertebrae, Rhinoceros, Megafauna, Mammoth, Woolly mammoth, Pleistocene megafauna


The processes leading up to species extinctions are typically characterized by prolonged declines in population size and geographic distribution, followed by a phase in which populations are very small and may be subject to intrinsic threats, including loss of genetic diversity and inbreeding [1]. However, whether such genetic factors have had an impact on species prior to their extinction is unclear [2, 3]; examining this would require a detailed reconstruction of a species' demographic history as well as changes in genome-wide diversity leading up to its extinction. Here, we present high-quality complete genome sequences from two woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius). The first mammoth was sequenced at 17.1-fold coverage and dates to ∼4,300 years before present, representing one of the last surviving individuals on Wrangel Island. The second mammoth, sequenced at 11.2-fold coverage, was obtained from an ∼44,800-year-old specimen from the Late Pleistocene population in northeastern Siberia. The demographic trajectories inferred from the two genomes are qualitatively similar and reveal a population bottleneck during the Middle or Early Pleistocene, and a more recent severe decline in the ancestors of the Wrangel mammoth at the end of the last glaciation. A comparison of the two genomes shows that the Wrangel mammoth has a 20% reduction in heterozygosity as well as a 28-fold increase in the fraction of the genome that comprises runs of homozygosity. We conclude that the population on Wrangel Island, which was the last surviving woolly mammoth population, was subject to reduced genetic diversity shortly before it became extinct.

Concepts: Evolution, Extinction, Megafauna, Mammoth, Woolly mammoth, Wrangel Island, Dwarf elephant, Pleistocene megafauna


Ancient DNA analyses have provided enhanced resolution of population histories in many Pleistocene taxa. However, most studies are spatially restricted, making inference of species-level biogeographic histories difficult. Here, we analyse mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) variation in the woolly mammoth from across its Holarctic range to reconstruct its history over the last 200 thousand years (kyr). We identify a previously undocumented major mtDNA lineage in Europe, which was replaced by another major mtDNA lineage 32-34 kyr before present (BP). Coalescent simulations provide support for demographic expansions at approximately 121 kyr BP, suggesting that the previous interglacial was an important driver for demography and intraspecific genetic divergence. Furthermore, our results suggest an expansion into Eurasia from America around 66 kyr BP, coinciding with the first exposure of the Bering Land Bridge during the Late Pleistocene. Bayesian inference indicates Late Pleistocene demographic stability until 20-15 kyr BP, when a severe population size decline occurred.

Concepts: DNA, Genetics, Human, Biology, Mitochondrion, Mitochondrial DNA, Demography, Woolly mammoth


MC5R is one of five melanocortin receptor genes found in placental mammals. MC5R plays an important role in energy homeostasis and is also expressed in the terminal differentiation of sebaceous glands. Among placental mammals there are multiple lineages that either lack or have degenerative sebaceous glands including Cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), Hippopotamidae (hippopotamuses), Sirenia (manatees and dugongs), Proboscidea (elephants), Rhinocerotidae (rhinos), and Heterocephalus glaber (naked mole rat). Given the loss or diminution of sebaceous glands in these taxa, we procured MC5R sequences from publicly available genomes and transcriptomes, supplemented by a newly generated sequence for Choeropsis liberiensis (pygmy hippopotamus), to determine if this gene remains intact or is inactivated in association with loss/reduction of sebaceous glands. Our data set includes complete MC5R sequences for 114 placental mammal species including two individuals of Mammuthus primigenius (woolly mammoth) from Oimyakon and Wrangel Island. Complete loss or inactivation of the MC5R gene occurs in multiple placental lineages that have lost sebaceous glands (Cetacea, West Indian manatee, African elephant, white rhinoceros) or are characterized by unusual skin (pangolins, aardvarks). Both M. primigenius individuals share inactivating mutations with the African elephant even though sebaceous glands have been reported in the former. MC5R remains intact in hippopotamuses and the naked mole rat, although slightly elevated dN/dS ratios in these lineages allow for the possibility that the accumulation of inactivating mutations in MC5R may lag behind the relaxation of purifying selection. For Cetacea and Hippopotamidae, the absence of shared inactivating mutations in two different skin genes (MC5R, PSORS1C2) is consistent with the hypothesis that semi-aquatic lifestyles were acquired independently in these clades following divergence from a common ancestor.

Concepts: Mammal, Elephant, Hippopotamus, Rhinoceros, Naked mole rat, Sirenia, Afrotheria, Woolly mammoth