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Keywords:

  • ancient DNA;
  • extinction;
  • glaciation;
  • Mammuthus primigenius;
  • megafauna;
  • palaeogenetics

Abstract

The last glaciation was a dynamic period with strong impact on the demography of many species and populations. In recent years, mitochondrial DNA sequences retrieved from radiocarbon-dated remains have provided novel insights into the history of Late Pleistocene populations. However, genotyping of loci from the nuclear genome may provide enhanced resolution of population-level changes. Here, we use four autosomal microsatellite DNA markers to investigate the demographic history of woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) in north-eastern Siberia from before 60 000 years ago up until the species’ final disappearance c. 4000 years ago. We identified two genetic groups, implying a marked temporal genetic differentiation between samples with radiocarbon ages older than 12 thousand radiocarbon years before present (ka) and those younger than 9 ka. Simulation-based analysis indicates that this dramatic change in genetic composition, which included a decrease in individual heterozygosity of approximately 30%, was due to a multifold reduction in effective population size. A corresponding reduction in genetic variation was also detected in the mitochondrial DNA, where about 65% of the diversity was lost. We observed no further loss in genetic variation during the Holocene, which suggests a rapid final extinction event.