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Ancient genomes suggest woolly rhinos went extinct due to climate change, not overhunting



Although overhunting led to the demise of some prehistoric megafauna after the last ice age, a new study found that the extinction of the woolly rhinoceros may have been caused by climate change. By sequencing ancient DNA from 14 woolly rhinos, researchers found that their population remained stable and diverse until only a few thousand years before it disappeared from Siberia, when temperatures likely rose too high.


The extinction of prehistoric megafauna like the woolly mammoth, cave lion, and woolly rhinoceros at the end of the last ice age has often been attributed to the spread of early humans across the globe. Although overhunting led to the demise of some species, a study appearing August 13 in the journal Current Biology found that the extinction of the woolly rhinoceros may have had a different cause: climate change. By sequencing ancient DNA from 14 of these megaherbivores, researchers found that the woolly rhinoceros population remained stable and diverse until only a few thousand years before it disappeared from Siberia, when temperatures likely rose too high for the cold-adapted species.


"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," says senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Centre for Palaeogenetics, a joint venture between Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History. "So, the decline towards extinction of the woolly rhinoceros doesn't coincide so much with the first appearance of humans in the region. If anything, we actually see something looking a bit like an increase in population size during this period."

To learn about the size and stability of the woolly rhinoceros population in Siberia, the researchers studied the DNA from tissue, bone, and hair samples of 14 individuals. "We sequenced a complete nuclear genome to look back in time and estimate population sizes, and we also sequenced fourteen mitochondrial genomes to estimate the female effective population sizes," says co-first author Edana Lord, a PhD student at the Centre for Palaeogenetics.


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