Woolly Mammoths Experienced Detrimental Genetic Mutations Before Extinction

Woolly mammoths may have become extinct 3,700 years ago, but before they permanently left us, they suffered some very bad genetic mutations which helped to greatly speed up their demise, as a new study now shows. On a tiny island near Siberia, around 4,000 years ago, one of the few remaining populations of woolly mammoths resided.

Unfortunately for this group of woolly mammoths, they suffered from a "genomic meltdown." These genetic mutations continued and ended up moving so rapidly that the woolly mammoths became extinct much sooner than they would have if these mutations hadn't taken place.

Rebekah Rogers, who is an evolutionary geneticist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, explained that today, we can look at the DNA from woolly mammoths and see this genomic meltdown, as Science Alert reported.

"It's sort of like a Greek tragedy that's written into the DNA of the poor mammoth. You look at this mammoth's DNA and you see all these bad mutations."
The skeleton of a woolly mammoth in Billingshurst, England on November 26, 2014.
The skeleton of a woolly mammoth in Billingshurst, England on November 26, 2014. [Image by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]

Woolly mammoths were once extremely common herbivores which could be seen living everywhere from Siberia all the way to the Canadian Yukon. Woolly mammoths were known to have first come into existence 700,000 years ago, but 10,000 years ago, when we left the last Ice Age, the woolly mammoth did not fare as well as it once had, according to Live Science.

Scientists believe that hunters and a warmer-than-usual climate helped to contribute to the extinction of the woolly mammoth, but now researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have studied two mammoths which show that genetic mutations in their DNA also helped to kill off the species.

Of the two woolly mammoths that scientists studied, one was a 4,300-year-old mammoth from Wrangel Island, which is located near Russia. The second was from Siberia and was a 45,000-year-old mammoth. The more recent mammoth from Wrangel Island, which was near the end of the line for this species, had numerous mutations which were harmful and these would have compromised normal functions for this animal and also would have made survival even more difficult.

Researchers studying this woolly mammoth believe that because the population of this animal was so small at the time, there would have been quite a lot of inbreeding, which would helped to cause these genetic mutations which helped to wipe out the woolly mammoth. Rebekah Rogers said that even though they only looked at one woolly mammoth from Siberia, she believes that this "genetic meltdown" would have taken place in all of the other surviving woolly mammoths as well.
"We would expect that if you got another mammoth from the island and you looked at its genome, that it would also have an excess of bad mutations. They might not be the exact same mutations — some of them would be shared, and some of them might be different — but we would expect the same pattern."
Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist from the University of California, Santa Cruz, agrees with researchers on this study and believes that if the population of woolly mammoths was as small as it was, you would almost certainly have harmful genetic mutations taking place. She also points out that despite the size of the population, the genomes themselves are the most important aspect.

The burial site of several woolly mammoths near Belgrade, Serbia on June 19, 2012.
The burial site of several woolly mammoths near Belgrade, Serbia on June 19, 2012. [Image by Marko Drobnjakovic/AP Images]

"It makes sense that the researchers would find an accumulation of deleterious mutations in a population that was very small. This reveals that it's not necessarily just a small population size that is potentially dangerous for populations but also the content of those genomes that's important."
Now that researchers have shown that the woolly mammoth became extinct much faster than usual due to genetic mutations, how do you feel about cloning the woolly mammoth?

[Featured Image by Matt Dunham/AP Images]