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Scientists Decode Genes of Prehistoric Woolly Mammoth

For the first time, scientists have decoded much of the genetic blueprint of a prehistoric creature - the woolly mammoth. Scientists say the achievement will give them information about the migration of elephants as well as why the woolly mammoth became extinct. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

Evolutionary biologists at The Pennsylvania State University extracted the genetic material from hair found in the Siberian permafrost.

With its thick coat, the extinct woolly mammoth, a relative of the African elephant, was uniquely equipped to live in the frigid northern hemisphere.

The work on the woolly mammoth's genetic sequence is published this week in the journal Nature.

Lead author Stephan Schuster says the modern-day African elephant and the prehistoric mammoth share 99.4 percent of their genes.

"So this tells you that they are very, very similar," he said. "And also, just because they are extinct doesn't mean it is an ancient elephant. It is as modern as an Asian or African elephant. It just had the bad luck to go extinct before today."

Schuster says the data show the mammoth evolved from the African elephant six million years ago, around the same time human ancestors are thought to have split from chimpanzees.

Researchers hope their work will help shed light on how the woolly mammoth evolved and why it died out.

But Stephan Schuster says the genetic research will not enable scientists to clone a woolly mammoth or other prehistoric creatures as in the movie Jurassic Park.

"It is a relevant scientific question to do this," he said. "And for that, the answer would be always, 'No.' I think what we need to know about mammoths we can study in other ways."

Michael Hofreiter is an evolutionary anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. In a commentary in Nature, he marvels at the latest technology that made it possible to sequence the entire genome of a prehistoric animal.

"It's pretty astounding for me, especially if you think that these animals have been dead for like 40,000 years," Hofreiter said.

Meanwhile, biochemist Stephan Schuster says researchers hope to apply the techniques they are using to study mammoths to the preservation of animals, like the Tasmanian Devil, on the verge of extinction today.