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Mammoth extinction not due to inbreeding

March 24, 2012 at 7:07 PM   |   Comments

LONDON, March 24 (UPI) -- A British study on the extinction of woolly mammoths found the last known population of the prehistoric animals did not die out because of inbreeding.

The study, conducted jointly by British and Swedish scientists, examined bones, teeth and tusks from Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean where the last known population of woolly mammoths lived about 4,000 years ago, the BBC reported.

Mammoths generally disappeared from mainland Eurasia and North America about 10,000 years ago, but lived on for another 6,000 years on Wrangel Island.

"Wrangel Island is not that big and it was initially thought that such a small population could have suffered problems of inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity," said the report's co-author, Dr. Love Dalen of the department of molecular systematics at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.

Researchers found that, contrary to popular belief, the animals more likely were killed off by human activity or environmental factors.

The report, published Friday, concluded that the extinction of mammoths on Wrangel Island was "not a delayed outcome of an inevitable process" such as inbreeding.

"This suggests that the final extinction was caused by a rapid change in the mammoths' environment, such as the arrival of humans or a change in climate, rather than a gradual decline in population size," the study said.

The study also found the population of mammoths on the island generally ranged between 500 and 1,000.

Dalen said the study can be useful in modern-day conservation programs.

"What's really interesting is that maintaining 500 effective individuals is a very common target in conservation programs," he said. "Our results therefore support the idea that such an effective population size is enough to maintain genetic diversity for thousands of years. These mammoths did fine with what was originally considered to be a small number."

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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