Scientists Fully Map Woolly Mammoth Genome

Woolly Mammoths have long been joked about as one of the first creatures we could bring back to life from prehistory, due to many of their bodies being preserved once they died during the Ice Age. Now it has become nearly a reality, because scientists have fully mapped the genome of two baby woolly mammoths.

A team comprised of international scientists fully sequenced the nearly complete genome of the baby male woolly mammoths. Evolutionary geneticist, director of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University, and researcher at the Institute for Infectious Disease Research Hendrik Poinar explained that the findings will give valuable insight into not only the evolution of the species and how they differ from, say, elephants, but also how they went extinct. While prevailing theories of the woolly mammoth extinction are a combination of a warming climate and hunting from human ancestors, the findings suggest more factors may have been at play.

The baby woolly mammoths died 40,000 years apart; one lived in Siberia about 45,000 years ago, and the other lived about 4,300 years ago in what is thought to be the last bastion of woolly mammoths before their extinction, Russia’s Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. Comparing the two genomes, scientists found that there was little genetic variation in the woolly mammoth from Wrangel Island, suggesting heavy inbreeding. The research paints a different picture to the extinction of woolly mammoths: though hounded by hunters and a warming climate, a small population manifested inbreeding with effects unfortunate enough to dwindle the population to zero.

Poinar noted that the woolly mammoths did manage to last a long time, and are more recent of a creature than we may think. The genome data shows that the woolly mammoth population suffered a severe setback, and subsequent recovery, about 250,000 to 300,000 years ago. Genome data from the Wrangel Island woolly mammoth, however, shows that it died about 4,300 years ago — meaning that while the Egyptians were building the Pyramids, woolly mammoths were roaming on the island, Poinar explained. In a twist of science fiction, Poinar said that with a nearly complete genome, recreating an extinct species is now a possibility that could be realized within only a few decades.

Woolly Mammoths were recently popularized by the movie Ice Age (and its multiple sequels), which popularized travel to icy lands–watch this appealing Icelandic journey for clues into why: