Quirks & Quarks

Mammoths were promiscuous pachyderms

New technology has allowed scientists to explore the genome of mammoths from all over North America, and shows separate species spent a lot of time breeding with each other.

New genetic study suggests different species of mammoths interbred freely

Artist's reconstruction of a woolly mammoth (Carl Buell/Frontiers in Evolution)
A new study of ancient DNA retrieved from Mammoth skeletons from all over North America is re-writing the story of indigenous elephant evolution.

Based only on analysis of bones, paleontologists had previously divided North American mammoths into two quite distinct species. The larger Colombian mammoth was thought to have arrived more than a million years ago and spread throughout what is now the US.  The smaller, hairier Woolly mammoth was thought to have been a late arrival, only 100,000 years ago, and restricted itself to Northern Areas.  

But new technology has made it possible to retrieve genetic information from quite degraded bones.  And using Dr. Jacob Enk working in the Ancient DNA laboratory at McMaster University in Hamilton, revealed that these two nominal species mixed and interbred throughout their ranges over long periods of time, somehow maintaining their physical differences. Mr. Enk is now lead MYbaits R&D scientist at Microarray in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Related Links

Paper in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution
- Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution release

- McMaster ancient DNA Centre release
- CBC News story
- Smithsonian magazine story