Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Scientists have successfully recovered DNA from a frozen bird found in the Siberian permafrost. Analysis of the DNA revealed the frozen bird to be a 46,000-year-old horned lark.
The discovery, described Friday in the journal Communications Biology, could help scientists trace the transformation of mammoth steppe into tundra and forest at the end of the last ice age.
When the frozen bird was first found in 2018, scientists didn't know its identity, but the well-preserved specimen yielded intact DNA that scientists were able to sequence in the lab.
"Not only can we identify the bird as a horned lark," lead study author Nicolas Dussex, zoologist at Stockholm University, said in a news release. "The genetic analysis also suggests that the bird belonged to a population that was a joint ancestor of two subspecies of horned lark living today, one in Siberia, and one in the steppe in Mongolia. This helps us understand how the diversity of subspecies evolves."
The findings not only provided insight into the evolution of the horned lark, but also the evolution of region's biomes at the end of the last ice age.
During the Last Glacial Maximum, the mammoth steppe, characterized by grasses and shrubs, became Earth's most extensive biome, spreading out across northern Europe and Asia. The biome was dominated by bison, horses, woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros.
Some scientists have theorized that the steppe consisted of a mix of tundra and coniferous forest. As the planet warmed and the glaciers receded, the biome became divided into three main types: tundra in the north, taiga in the middle and steppe in the south.
"Our results support this theory since the diversification of the horned lark into these subspecies seems to have happened about at the same time as the mammoth steppe disappeared," said Love Dalén, paleogeneticist and professor at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.
Scientists have yet to map the entire genome of the frozen bird. When they do, the team of researchers plans to compare the genome to those of all horned lark subspecies to build a more thorough history of the bird's evolution.
The dig site, located in the Belaya Gora area of northeastern Siberia, has yielded several other interesting specimens, which scientists are currently studying, including an 18,000-year-old wolf or dog puppy, a 50,000-year-old cave lion cub and a partially preserved woolly mammoth.