February 18, 2020
Off the coast of Siberia is Wrangel Island, a pocket of land that was home to the last of the wooly mammoths. Here, on this island in the Arctic Ocean one last population of mammoths lived on, safe from human hunting. Alas this island not only provided refuge for these last mammoths, but also their death sentence.
The isolated island meant that there was no genetic variation coming from other mammoth populations via what is known as gene flow. Their small population size further compounded the problem thanks to inbreeding which resulted in deletions and mutations of important genes. Researchers from the University of Buffalo have been able to pinpoint some of these genetic problems by comparing DNA from these mammoths to DNA from two other mammoths and three Asian elephants.
By analyzing this DNA, the researchers were able to identify a group of genetic mutations in the Wrangle Island mammoths. The team then synthesized these genes in their laboratory to see how functional they would have been in this last mammoth population. Their analysis showed that the mammoths would have fertility problems due to faults in genes involved in sperm production. The mammoths also may have had difficulty searching for the flowers they ate thanks to a mutation that impacted their olfactory system. These genetic mutations, and others would have been amplified over time in this small inbred population, and ultimately led to their demise. This helps highlight the need to ensure small populations of endangered animals maintain their genetic diversity to ensure they remain healthy.
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