University’s mammoth study

04 April 2012

Scientists at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University have contributed to a study that suggests the last known population of mammoths did not "inevitably" die out because of inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity.

Scientists working together in the UK and Sweden, applied techniques normally used to tackle crime scenes to carry out DNA analysis of samples recovered from the permafrost on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean.

Professor Paul Shaw and Dr Niall McKeown from IBERS developed the microsatellite DNA methods for the study, which is the first time this technique has been applied to mammoths.  The study, published in the journal Molecular Ecology, concluded that it was more likely that human activity or environmental factors killed off the last mammoth population.

Although mammoths generally died out and disappeared from mainland Eurasia and North America around 10,000 years ago, it is estimated that about 500-1,000 mammoths continued to survive for a further 6,000 years on the 7,000 sq km Wrangel Island after it was cut off from the Russian mainland by rising sea levels.

Professor Shaw and Dr McKeown also say their research could have implications for modern-day conservation programmes, as it suggests that population sizes of 500 individuals can be large enough to maintain genetic variation over long time periods.