UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — The vast majority of woolly mammoths ( Mammuthus primigenius ) died out at the end of the last ice age, but small isolated populations could survive longer. A new study by scientists from the University of New York (Buffalo) reveals the extent to which at least one of the last mammoths has suffered due to numerous mutations.
The end of the ice age and the associated loss of habitat played a decisive role in the death of mammoths about 10,000 – 15,000 years ago. However, a couple of relict populations managed to survive before dying thousands of years later.
The woolly mammoths on St. Paul’s Island in the Bering Sea disappeared only 5,600 years ago, and their relatives on the Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean survived until the second millennium BC.
These tiny populations lasted longer than others due to isolation, but this same factor caused a lack of genetic diversity, which led to many problems associated with inbreeding.
In 2017, a study by scientists from the University of North Carolina revealed many genetic malfunctions in woolly mammoths from Wrangel Island. The new study is unique in that it demonstrates the functional consequences of specific genetic mutations called alleles.
The Broken Genes of the Last Woolly Mammoths | "The key innovation of our paper is that we actually resurrect Wrangel Island mammoth genes to test whether their mutations actually were damaging," said Vincent Lynch, PhD. https://t.co/T7L9a32Ejp pic.twitter.com/3vWBplGCSW
— Genetics & Genomics (@Genetics_LR) February 10, 2020
Researchers studied the woolly mammoth genome from Wrangel Island, the DNA of two continental mammoths and three Indian elephants as a comparative analysis.
They revealed a number of harmful mutations in the mammoth from Wrangel Island that caused various defects in behavior and development. Among them were diabetes, decreased male fertility and the inability to smell flowers.
A similar loss in olfactory function has been documented in dolphins and whales, but their ability to perceive odors slowly faded as they migrated to the aquatic environment. Co-author of the study, evolutionary biologist Vincent Lynch notes that this dysfunction came as a surprise to scientists, given how important sense of smell is for elephants.
“They have thousands of genes designed to detect different odors, which is much more than other mammals,” says Lynch.
“We found that mutations altered the function of mammoth genes in such a way that they caused disease. Previous genetic studies suggested this, but did not demonstrate it clearly, ”Vincent Lynch.
According to the scientist, the population of mammoths on Wrangel Island was constantly decreasing, which led to a large number of inbreeding among distant relatives. Such things usually lead to the accumulation of genetic defects and diseases, which probably contributed to the extinction of animals.
Lynch notes that he would like to receive another mammoth from Wrangel Island, as well as a sample from St. Paul’s Island for further DNA research, however, if mammoth fossils are not uncommon, then obtaining stored DNA is a difficult task.
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