Wooly mammoths were only about the size of modern African elephants. A new highly detailed study looked at the evolutionary history of the elephant family from mammoths, mastodons, paleoloxodons to surviving species. It was not a "linear" evolution. PHOTO: Martin Meissner- AP

The detailed genetic history of elephants


Mammoths, mastodons, straight-tusked elephants, and living species; an international team of scientists have established the most complete genomic history of elephants.

They’re produced complete genomes of 14 species, from long extinct, to living elephant species.

Evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar (PhD) of McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario is one of the senior authors on the paper and Director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre and principal investigator at the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Research.


The genomes of such things as mastodons, wooly mammoths, paleoloxodons, and species of modern elephants points to a complex series of interbreeding relationships says Poinar.

The wooly mammoth was actually about the size of a modern African elephant, but the ancient Paleoloxodon (shown) was the biggest of the bunch at about twice that size. Genetics show it was actually a hybrid. IMAGE Carl Buell

“The combined analysis of genome-wide data from all these ancient elephants and mastodons has raised the curtain on elephant population history, revealing complexity that we were simply not aware of before,” he says addint that it shows evolution is not a linear affair and can be “quite messy”.

Evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar
Credit: JD Howell, McMaster University
Hamilton Ontario

The international team involved in the multi-year project included researchers from McMaster, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Harvard Medical School, Uppsala University, and the University of Potsdam.

Analysis of the ancient straight-tusked elephant showed that it was a sort of hybrid with portions of its genetic makeup stemming from an ancient African elephant, the woolly mammoth and present-day African forest elephants.

Graduate student Emil Karpinski holds a tibial cross section from a Siberian Woolly Mammoth. This permafrost preserved sample still contains fat entombed marrow. From such samples, highly detailed genome of the species was created.
Credit: JD Howell, McMaster University

Researchers also found further evidence of interbreeding among the Columbian and woolly mammoths, somehint which was first reported by Poinar and his team in 2011.  Despite their vastly different habitats and sizes, researchers believe the woolly mammoths, encountered Columbian mammoths at the boundary of glacial and in the more temperate ecozones of North America.

Poinar says the ancient interbreeding probably enabled the species to adapt to varying climates and conditions, but notes that seems have stopped in existing elephants, their distant relatives.

Asian elephants are distinct from the African elephants, but there it seems the forest and savannah elephants are also virtually distinct from each other. Even though they have neighbouring ranges, it seems they have remained apart for some 500,000 years.

Africa’s forest elephants look almost exactly like savannah elephants, although somewhat smaller. The study showed although their environments abutted each other, there has suprisingly been virtually no intermingling in over 500,000 years. Sadly both species have been severely depleted and are under continued threat from poachers PHOTO via CBC

Poinar says the project developed from an initial concern about the survival and conservation of modern elephants and then their genetic history began to be added to that effort.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) under the title, “A Comprehensive Genomic History of Extinct and Living Elephants (abstract HERE)

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Environment, Internet, Science and Technology

Do you want to report an error or a typo? Click here!

@*@ Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

Note: By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that Radio Canada International has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Radio Canada International does not endorse any of the views posted. Your comments will be pre-moderated and published if they meet netiquette guidelines.

Netiquette »

When you express your personal opinion in an online forum, you must be as courteous as if you were speaking with someone face-to-face. Insults and personal attacks will not be tolerated. To disagree with an opinion, an idea or an event is one thing, but to show disrespect for other people is quite another. Great minds don’t always think alike—and that’s precisely what makes online dialogue so interesting and valuable.

Netiquette is the set of rules of conduct governing how you should behave when communicating via the Internet. Before you post a message to a blog or forum, it’s important to read and understand these rules. Otherwise, you may be banned from posting.

  1. RCInet.ca’s online forums are not anonymous. Users must register, and give their full name and place of residence, which are displayed alongside each of their comments. RCInet.ca reserves the right not to publish comments if there is any doubt as to the identity of their author.
  2. Assuming the identity of another person with intent to mislead or cause harm is a serious infraction that may result in the offender being banned.
  3. RCInet.ca’s online forums are open to everyone, without regard to age, ethnic origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
  4. Comments that are defamatory, hateful, racist, xenophobic, sexist, or that disparage an ethnic origin, religious affiliation or age group will not be published.
  5. In online speak, writing in ALL CAPS is considered yelling, and may be interpreted as aggressive behaviour, which is unpleasant for the people reading. Any message containing one or more words in all caps (except for initialisms and acronyms) will be rejected, as will any message containing one or more words in bold, italic or underlined characters.
  6. Use of vulgar, obscene or objectionable language is prohibited. Forums are public places and your comments could offend some users. People who use inappropriate language will be banned.
  7. Mutual respect is essential among users. Insulting, threatening or harassing another user is prohibited. You can express your disagreement with an idea without attacking anyone.
  8. Exchanging arguments and opposing views is a key component of healthy debate, but it should not turn into a dialogue or private discussion between two users who address each other without regard for the other participants. Messages of this type will not be posted.
  9. Radio Canada International publishes contents in five languages. The language used in the forums has to be the same as the contents we publish. The usage of other languages, with the exception of some words, is forbidden. Messages that are off-topic will not be published.
  10. Making repetitive posts disrupts the flow of discussions and will not be tolerated.
  11. Adding images or any other type of file to comments is forbidden. Including hyperlinks to other websites is allowed, as long as they comply with netiquette. Radio Canada International  is in no way responsible for the content of such sites, however.
  12. Copying and pasting text written by someone else, even if you credit the author, is unacceptable if that text makes up the majority of your comment.
  13. Posting any type of advertising or call to action, in any form, to Radio Canada International  forums is prohibited.
  14. All comments and other types of content are moderated before publication. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to refuse any comment for publication.
  15. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to close a forum at any time, without notice.
  16. Radio Canada International  reserves the right to amend this code of conduct (netiquette) at any time, without notice.
  17. By participating in its online forums, you allow Radio Canada International to publish your comments on the web for an indefinite time. This also implies that these messages will be indexed by Internet search engines.
  18. Radio Canada International has no obligation to remove your messages from the web if one day you request it. We invite you to carefully consider your comments and the consequences of their posting.