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)

Arctic climate in the run-up to the Great Ice Age

Around 3.6 Ma ago a large extraterrestrial projectile slammed into the far north-east of Siberia forming crater 16 km across. The depression soon filled with water to form Lake El’gygytgyn, on whose bed sediments have accumulated up to the present. A major impact close to the supposed start of Northern Hemisphere glacial conditions was a tempting target for coring: possibly two birds with one stone as the lowest sediments would probably be impact debris and boreal lake sediments of this age are as rare as hens’ teeth. The sedimentary record of Lake El’gygytgyn has proved to be a climate-change treasure trove (Brigham-Grette, J and 15 others 2013. Pliocene warmth, polar amplification, and stepped Pleistocene cooling recorded in NE Arctic Russia. Science, v. 340, p. 1421-1426).

El'gygytgyn, Russia, is a impact crater with a...
Lake El’gygytgyn impact crater. (credit: Wikipedia)

The team of US, Russian, German and Swedish scientists discovered that the sedimentary record was complete over a depth of 318 m and so promised a high resolution climate record. The striking feature of the sediments is that they show cyclical variation between five different facies, four of which are laminated and so preserve intricate records of varying weathering and sediment delivery to the lake. The sediments also contain pollens and diatom fossils, and yield good magnetic polarity data. The last show up periods of reversed geomagnetic polarity, which provide age calibration independent of relative correlation with marine isotope records.

A host of climate-related proxies, including pollen from diverse tree and shrub genera, variations in silica due to changes in diatom populations and organic carbon content in the cyclically  changing sedimentary facies are correlated with global climate records based on marine-sediment stable isotope. These records reveal intricate oscillations between cool mixed forest, cool coniferous forest, taiga  and cold deciduous forest, with occasional frigid tundra conditions through the mid- to late Pliocene. Compared with modern conditions NE Siberia was much warmer and wetter at the start of the record. Around the start of the Pleistocene sudden declines to cooler and drier conditions appear, although until 2.2 Ma ago average summer conditions seem to have been higher that at present, despite evidence from marine proxies of the onset of glacial-interglacial cycles in the Northern Hemisphere.

In detail, Lake El’gygytgyn revealed some surprises including rapid onset of a lengthy cold-dry spell of tundra conditions between 3.31 to 3.28 Ma. The first signs that the lake was perennially frozen appear around 2.6 Ma, well before evidence for the first continental glaciation in North America, presaged by signs around 2.7 Ma that winters consistently became colder than present ones. Overall the lake record presents a picture of a stepped shift in climate in the run-up to the Great Ice Age. Lake El’gygytgyn seems set to become the standard against which other, more patchy records around the Arctic Ocean are matched and correlated. Indeed it is the longest and most detailed record of climate for the Earth’s land surface, compared with 120 and 800 ka for the Greenland and Antarctic ice-caps.

Modelling their findings against likely atmospheric CO2 levels the authors provide grist to the media mill which focuses on how the late Pliocene may be a model for a future warm Earth if emissions are not curtailed, with visions of dense polar forests