New research suggests that elephant interbreeding was crucial for the animals’ survival in ancient times, as mammoths, mastodons, and other ancestors of modern elephants mated with different species. And with today’s elephants either considered vulnerable or endangered, the researchers believe that their discovery could help improve the animals’ survival prospects going forward.
In a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a multinational team of researchers analyzed the genetic makeup of modern elephants and some of their ancestors. As noted by Gizmodo, the researchers sequenced a total of 14 genomes, including various Asian elephant genomes, two African forest elephant genomes, two African savanna elephant genomes, multiple woolly mammoth genomes, and, for the first time in scientific history, one Columbian mammoth genome. Even if some of the samples were over 100,000 years old, the scientists were still able to generate “high quality” genomes, taking the genetic material from pieces of teeth and bones from the remains of various elephants.
Interbreeding was spotted in multiple cases, as the researchers discovered that the extinct straight-tusked elephant, which lived in Europe about 50,000 to 780,000 years ago, had what appeared to be woolly mammoth and African forest elephant DNA. The study also corroborated previous research that suggested the Columbian mammoth and woolly mammoth interbred; although they were located in different parts of the world and had some disparity in terms of size, the researchers believe that both mammoth species might have bumped into each other quite often around glacial boundaries, and in ancient North America’s more temperate regions.
“Interbreeding may help explain why mammoths were so successful over such diverse environments and for such a long time,” explained senior author and evolutionary geneticist Henrik Poinar in a statement quoted by CNET.
Furthermore, the researchers discovered that African forest and African savanna elephants, both of which are still existing today, had a common ancestor about 2 million to 5 million years ago. These two species have lived separated from each other since about 500,000 years ago, and while their habitats may be close to each other, Gizmodo noted that the two elephant species “don’t like to mix,” confirming that elephant interbreeding is no longer prevalent in modern times.
According to CNET, the new study could show some potential in helping today’s elephants survive for longer, as it suggests that genetically engineering a modern elephant/mammoth hybrid could be possible. This theoretical hybrid, CNET added, would ideally be one that won’t be as attractive to hunters and poachers, while being able to survive in various climates.
While the elephant interbreeding study could be seen by some as a sign that reviving the woolly mammoth in modern times is possible, as earlier research had suggested, study author Poinar said that his team’s efforts are more centered on so-called “de-extinction conservation,” which involves blending genetic traits from ancient, extinct creatures into the genomes of living species. CNET wrote that this is akin to giving modern elephants a genetic “blast from the past” to improve their prospects at a time when different elephant species is more crucial than ever before.