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Proboscidean Phylogeography in North America

Using Mammoth and Mastodon Population Genetics to Track Pleistocene Ecosystems

Team members involved: Emil Karpinski
Former Team Members: Regis Debruyne, Genevieve Chu, Ben Novak, Jacob Enk, Jocelyn Ip
Project also in collaboration with Ross D.E. Macphee, Dan Fisher, Grant Zazula, Dale Guthrie and Cerpolex/Mammuthus
Funding provided by: NSERC (National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada)

Extinct North American proboscideans – mammoths and mastodons – were keystone megaherbivores that shaped the Pleistocene ecosystem.

Previous studies of genetic variation in glacial-biome woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) demonstrated a complex evolutionary history, with periods of genetic turnover, trans-continental immigration, and perhaps even interspecific hybridization. Many of these dynamics appear closely linked to major climatic events, and demonstrate that mammoth evolution was tumultuous even before humans entered the scene.

Present work builds upon these previous studies, expanding inquiry south of the permafrost to other North American proboscideans – the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), pygmy mammoth (Mammuthus exilis) and American Mastodon (Mammut americanum). These each inhabited distinct ecosystems, which overlapped intermittently during the Pleistocene. How did their population histories differ? What does this imply about the demise of the Pleistocene ecosystem? Why did all of them go extinct at roughly the same time?

This project involves DNA isolation and sequencing from some of the poorest-preserved remains yet studied. The project serves to showcase the capacities of modern techniques in population-scale ancient DNA studies.