The DNA of some old mammoths

The only positive outcome of the thawing of permafrost is that it exposes remains of ancient animals in a virtually intact state, most famously those of the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). But not so well-preserved that anyone could be induced to feast on its thawed-out meat. Tales of select groups being served mammoth at banquets are almost certainly apocryphal, but several have tasted one, and found that the meat smelled rotten and tasted awful. Mammoth bones, being so large, are regularly found and most museums in the Northern Hemisphere display their enormous teeth. DNA from three species of these extinct elephants has been sequenced – North American and European woolly mammoths and the North American Columbian mammoth that thrived on the more temperate central plains. But they lived about 12 to 100 thousand years ago. Now genetic data are available from three molar teeth found in permafrost in the Chukochya river basin in northern Siberia. (van der Valk, T. and 21 others 2021. Million-year-old DNA sheds light on the genomic history of mammoths. Nature v.591, p. 265–269; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03224-9).

Wooly mammoth tooth offered for sale at Christie’s in 2015, which fetched £2750 (Credit: Christie’s on-line archives)

The mammoth molars have been dated at 0.68, 1.0 and 1.2 Ma (conservative estimates), far older than a horse dated between 560 and 780 ka that yielded DNA several years back. The sheer mass of the teeth and the fact that they had been preserved in frozen soil shielded genetic material from complete breakdown, but it was nonetheless heavily degraded to fragments no more than 50 base pairs long. This presented a major challenge to the team of palaeogeneticists’ reconstruction of the three mammoths’ genomes. Comparing the genomes with those of far younger woolly mammoths and their closest living relatives, Indian elephants, reveals that the ancient beasts were cold-adapted and probably had woolly coats. Two of the genomes suggest direct ancestry to both later woolly mammoths, whereas the third – the oldest – can  be linked to the enormous Columbian mammoth (M. columbi) that lived on mid-American grasslands during the Late Pleistocene. During glacial maxima when sea levels were ~100 m lower than at present Siberian faunas could easily have migrated into and colonised the Americas, using the Beringia land bridge across the Bering Strait. An early migration by the oldest Siberian mammoth could have given rise to the Columbian mammoth, later crossings to the American woollies. In fact it seems that genetic strands from the two younger Siberian mammoths also entered the DNA of M. columbi at some stage in its evolution.

Interesting as these revelations are about Arctic ice-age megafaunas, finding human remains that predate a few 10’s of ka in permafrost is unlikely. Modern humans and  Neanderthals are known to have migrated through Arctic Siberia, and perhaps Denisovans did too. Some individuals may have been unfortunate enough to have fallen into boggy ground that froze to form permafrost. However, there is no evidence for older human species having moved north of about 40°N since the first Africans entered 1.8 Ma ago. In any case, without the protection of massive bones, human DNA would probably have degraded more quickly than did that of these old mammoths.

See also: Roca, A.L. 2021. Million-year-old DNA provides a glimpse of mammoth evolution. Nature, v. 591, p. 208-209; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-00348-w; Black, R. 2021. Oldest DNA sequenced yet comes from million-year-old mammoths (Smithsonian Magazine, 17 February, 2021)