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Woolly mammoths, Neanderthals had similar genetic traits

"They say you are what you eat," researcher Ran Barkai said. "This was especially true of Neanderthals."

By Brooks Hays
Woolly mammoths, Neanderthals had similar genetic traits
Neanderthals and woolly mammoths shared similar genetic adaptations. Photo by AuntSpray/ShutterStock

April 8 (UPI) -- Woolly mammoths and Neanderthals shared similar genetic traits, according to a new study. Researchers suggest the similar genes allowed both mammals to thrive in cold environs.

Both species can trace their lineage to Africa, but woolly mammoths first emerged in Eurasia some 600,000 years ago, while Neanderthals emerged in Europe and spread into Eurasia around 450,000 years ago.

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Scientists at Tel Aviv University, who recently compared the genomes of the mammals, suspect their shared environs explain the similar genetic traits.

Neanderthals were highly-skilled humans that lived alongside -- and interbred with -- Homo sapiens for thousands of years. Their adaptability allowed them to spread across much of Europe and Eurasia, but the latest research suggests they possessed genetic traits that helped them thrive among frigid climes.

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"Neanderthals and mammoths lived together in Europe during the Ice Age," Ran Barkai, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv, said in a news release. "The evidence suggests that Neanderthals hunted and ate mammoths for tens of thousands of years and were actually physically dependent on calories extracted from mammoths for their successful adaptation."

"They say you are what you eat," Barkai said. "This was especially true of Neanderthals; they ate mammoths but were apparently also genetically similar to mammoths."

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Barkai and Meidad Kislev compared three genetic variants, or alleles, in both mammoths and Neanderthals that have been linked to cold weather adaptability. One of the variants influences thermogenesis and fat storage. Another allele controls keratin production. The third variant affects skin and hair pigmentation.

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The analysis, detailed this week in the journal Human Biology, showed the variants arise from similar mutations and are found in similar places on their respective chromosomes.

"Our observations present the likelihood of resemblance between numerous molecular variants that resulted in similar cold-adapted epigenetic traits of two species, both of which evolved in Eurasia from an African ancestor," Kislev said.

"These remarkable findings offer supporting evidence for the contention regarding the nature of convergent evolution through molecular resemblance, in which similarities in genetic variants between adapted species are present."

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