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Complete Columbian mammoth mitogenome suggests interbreeding with woolly mammoths

Here we report the first complete mitochondrial genomes of a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) and a North American Woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). Evolutionary analysis shows that the Columbian mammoth sample sits within a subclade of North Americna Woolly mammoths, suggesting that the two species likely interbred at some point their evolutionary histories.

May 31, 2011

Authors: J. Enk, A. Devault, R. Debruyne, C. King, T. Treangen, D. O'Rourke, S. Salzberg, D. Fisher, R. MacPhee, H. Poinar
 
Genome Biology, Issue 12:R51, May 2011. DOI:10.1186/gb-2011-12-5-r51

Background

Late Pleistocene North America hosted at least two divergent and ecologically distinct species of mammoth: the periglacial woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) and the subglacial Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi). To date, mammoth genetic research has been entirely restricted to woolly mammoths, rendering their genetic evolution difficult to contextualize within broader Pleistocene paleoecology and biogeography. Here, we take an interspecific approach to clarifying mammoth phylogeny by targeting Columbian mammoth remains for mitogenomic sequencing.

Results

We sequenced the first complete mitochondrial genome of a classic Columbian mammoth, as well as the first complete mitochondrial genome of a North American woolly mammoth. Somewhat contrary to conventional paleontological models, which posit that the two species were highly divergent, the M. columbi mitogenome we obtained falls securely within a subclade of endemic North American M. primigenius.

Conclusions

Though limited, our data suggest that the two species interbred at some point in their evolutionary histories. One potential explanation is that woolly mammoth haplotypes entered Columbian mammoth populations via introgression at subglacial ecotones, a scenario with compelling parallels in extant elephants and consistent with certain regional paleontological observations. This highlights the need for multi-genomic data to sufficiently characterize mammoth evolutionary history. Our results demonstrate that the use of next-generation sequencing technologies holds promise in obtaining such data, even from non-cave, non-permafrost Pleistocene depositional contexts.

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