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The oldest specimens of the woolly mammoth may have looked different than we imagine

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New research challenges our ideas about the first woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius). The oldest individuals may have looked completely different – they had less fluffy fur, less fat deposits and larger ears. Some of these features have changed in the course of evolution and adaptation to the harsh climate of Siberia.

The predisposition to thick fur and deposition of large amounts of fat was manifested in all woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius). However, according to the researchers, as they spread and adapted to the climate, these features became more and more pronounced. New research on the subject has been published in the scientific journal Current Biology.

One common ancestor

In the distant past, several different species of these mammals lived in the world. However, according to scientists, each of them came from one ancestor – the African mammoth (Mammuthus africanavus). For example, Eurasia was inhabited by the steppe mammoth (M. trogontherii). Researchers say that it was from him that the woolly mammoth later evolved. The first individual of this species may have appeared about 700,000 years ago in Asia.

Woolly mammoths coped well in the cold conditions, spreading not only in Asia, but also around the world. Traces of their presence have been discovered even in North America.

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To learn more about the mutations that gave rise to the woolly mammoth species, a group of scientists compared the genomes of 28 modern African and Indian elephants with the genomes of 23 woolly mammoths whose remains were found in Siberia. Most of them were quite young individuals – they lived in the last 100 thousand years. Among them, however, were the remains of a mammoth found in the Chukchi Autonomous Okrug in Siberia. They were about 700,000 years old.

“Having this genome allowed us to identify a number of genes that evolved during the life of the woolly mammoth as a species,” said Love Dalen, professor of evolutionary genomics at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, who was involved in the study. “This allows us to study evolution in real time and we can say that these particular mutations are unique to the woolly mammoth and did not exist in its ancestors.”

The first such analysis

The researchers added that this is the first analysis with so many samples of mammoth genomes. Thanks to this, it was possible to better understand the mutations that probably appeared as a result of adaptation to the environment. But there were also those that occurred only in a selected group of individuals.

‘We found that some genes that were previously thought to be specific to woolly mammoths were actually distributed differently, meaning they were probably not as important,’ commented David Diez-del-Molino of the Stockholm Center for Paleogenetics and first author of the study.

Based on the analysis of the oldest mammoth specimen, it was found that it had features clearly distinguishing it from the steppe mammoth.

Woolly mammoth stock.adobe.com

They could have looked different

However, during the research, other surprising facts came to light. They found that the oldest woolly mammoths may have had less fur and, in some cases, exhibited different characteristics than later specimens. This means that the last individual of this species to walk the world may have looked completely different from its ancestors.

– The oldest mammoths were not fully developed. Perhaps they had larger ears, and their wool could have been different – less fluffy compared to later individuals, Dalen said. He emphasized that fluffier fur appeared in the course of adaptation to the climate of Siberia. Also, the smaller ears served to reduce heat loss.

What’s more, scientists have also found specific genes that animals inhabiting today’s Arctic have, although there is no scientifically proven relationship between them.

‘We found several highly evolved genes related to fat metabolism and storage that are also found in other species, such as reindeer and polar bears. This means that there is likely convergent evolution in mammals for cold-adaptation genes, said Diez-del-Molino.

It is not known exactly what caused the woolly mammoths to evolve like this over the years. It’s similarly unclear why they went extinct, though fluffier fur and other Ice Age adaptations may have been a significant nuisance to them as the climate warmed.

Main photo source: stock.adobe.com

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