Uncovering the woolly mammoth's unique traits: A comprehensive genetic analysis

A groundbreaking study in Current Biology reveals that many of the woolly mammoth's distinctive features were already genetically encoded in the earliest members of the species.
Kavita Verma
Woolly Mammoth walking through snow
Woolly Mammoth walking through snow.


A team of scientists from the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm has conducted a pioneering study to uncover the genetic adaptations of woolly mammoths by comparing their genomes with those of modern-day elephants. The study's findings, which were published in Current Biology, provide valuable insight into the evolutionary journey of the iconic species that roamed the Earth over 700,000 years ago. 

Led by David Díez-del-Molino and Love Dalén, the research team analyzed the genomes of 23 Siberian woolly mammoths and compared them to 28 Asian and African elephant genomes. By tracking the evolution of specific genetic traits unique to woolly mammoths, the team observed how these traits developed over time.

The overtime evolution

According to the study, many of the woolly mammoth's defining characteristics, such as thick fur, fat metabolism, and cold-perception abilities, were already present in one of the oldest known members of the species, Chukochya, who lived approximately 700,000 years ago. However, these traits continued to evolve in the species, resulting in more refined adaptations in later generations. The research team believes that the earliest woolly mammoths possibly had larger ears and less insulating fur compared to their descendants.

The study revealed that some highly evolved genes related to fat metabolism and storage, also found in modern-day Arctic species like reindeer and polar bears, suggest convergent evolution among cold-adapted mammals. This implies that these species have independently evolved similar adaptations to survive in their frigid environments.

Working with ancient DNA presents unique challenges, including meticulous lab work, specialized equipment, and strict contamination prevention measures. The researchers were required to wear full-body suits, face masks, and double gloves while working in the ancient DNA laboratory.

The study underscores the importance of large sample sizes in genetic research. By comparing multiple mammoth genomes, the team was able to identify genes that were common among all woolly mammoths and, therefore, likely adaptive, as opposed to genetic mutations that might only have been present in a single individual. This comprehensive approach has led to a more accurate understanding of the woolly mammoth's genetic adaptations.

Researchers plan to expand the research further

The researchers hope to expand their research to include North American woolly mammoths, further enriching our understanding of these fascinating creatures. With this additional data, scientists can paint a complete picture of the complex evolutionary history of these majestic animals.

As researchers continue to explore the genetic secrets of the woolly mammoth, their findings will not only enhance our knowledge of the species but may also provide valuable insights into the broader story of mammalian evolution and adaptation to extreme environments. The research team's groundbreaking work sheds light on the unique traits of woolly mammoths and highlights the challenges and importance of working with ancient DNA.

Study Abstract:

The wooly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) is an extinct species that meandered the Siberian steppes during the Pleistocene age. This study investigates the evolution of the mammoth's physical characteristics over the 700,000 years that it existed in this region.

The review looks at the size of the mammoth's ears and the thickness of its fur, two qualities that are accepted to have helped the mammoth with adjusting to the cruel, cold climate of the Siberian steppes. By examining the fossil records of the mammoths, the analysts carved out that over opportunity, the mammoths advanced more modest ears and thicker, woolier coats.

The review recommends that these progressions might have been a transformation to the changing environment and the accessibility of food sources. As the environment became colder and food sources became scarcer, the mammoths evolved to better withstand the harsh conditions.

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