Watching mammoths go extinct

A new study of mammoths has discovered startling amounts of mutations accumulated in the DNA of a small population isolated on Wrangel Island off Siberia.

This research has important ramifications for current critically endangered species. It is an unusually long term example what happens to animals as they go extinct. This is a warning example of what happens to animals as they slowly go extinct.

Co-author Dr Rebekah Rogers told Scientific America;

“It’s difficult to catch a population in the process of going extinct, but this study finally made it possible.”

Having small isolated populations requires the animals to breed with relatives. This increases the chance of the DNA mutation and creating problems for the animals. Is it fair to let existing animals on the verge of extinction to live through a similar accumulation of mutations?

Researchers from the University of California compared the DNA of a mammoth from the small population on Wrangel Island, a mainland mammoth and an elephant from the San Diego Zoo.

The population of approximately 300 mammoths was isolated on the island for over 5,000 years after the mainland mammoths went extinct. The island mammoths were dwarfs compared to the mainland mammoths.

The woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius was the subject of this study.


There were so many mutations found in the island mammoth the researchers speculate the mammoths went extinct from a genomic meltdown. This means the animals had so many mutation and were so inbred they slowly decline to the point of extinction.

Amongst the mutations, the mammoths may have had problems with trouble of urination organs and had difficulties attracting mates to breed.  These mutations would have greatly affected the quality of life of the few remaining mammoths.

“If you can prevent these organisms ever being threatened or endangered then that will do a lot more to help prevent this type of genomic meltdown” Dr Rogers told the BBC.

Are critically endangered animals worth the investment of complex breeding programs if it results in their suffering through mutations? Genetics are known to suffer in small animal populations with inbreeding a known cause of extinction.

The Wrangel Island mammoths are an example of the dangers of dealing with a tiny population and the lessons should be applied to current research on endangered species.

We should concentrate research on animals with populations large enough to retain diversity in their genetics without resulting to dangerous inbreeding.


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