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Complete Columbian mammoth mitogenome suggests interbreeding with woolly mammoths

Jacob Enk1*, Alison Devault1, Regis Debruyne12, Christine E King1, Todd Treangen3, Dennis O'Rourke4, Steven L Salzberg3, Daniel Fisher5, Ross MacPhee6 and Hendrik Poinar1*

Author Affiliations

1 McMaster Ancient DNA Centre, Department of Anthropology, McMaster University, 1280 Main Street West, Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4L9, Canada

2 Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, UMR 7206 Eco-anthropologie, Equipe "génétique des populations humaines," 57 rue Cuvier, CP139, 75231 Paris Cedex 05, France

3 Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, 3115 Biomolecular Sciences Bldg #296, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA

4 Department of Anthropology, University of Utah, 270 S. 1400 East Room 102, Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0060, USA

5 Museum of Paleontology and Department of Geological Sciences, University of Michigan, 1109 Geddes Ave, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1079, USA

6 Division of Vertebrate Zoology, American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West @ 79th St, New York, NY 10024, USA

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Genome Biology 2011, 12:R51  doi:10.1186/gb-2011-12-5-r51

Published: 31 May 2011



Late Pleistocene North America hosted at least two divergent and ecologically distinct species of mammoth: the periglacial woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) and the subglacial Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi). To date, mammoth genetic research has been entirely restricted to woolly mammoths, rendering their genetic evolution difficult to contextualize within broader Pleistocene paleoecology and biogeography. Here, we take an interspecific approach to clarifying mammoth phylogeny by targeting Columbian mammoth remains for mitogenomic sequencing.


We sequenced the first complete mitochondrial genome of a classic Columbian mammoth, as well as the first complete mitochondrial genome of a North American woolly mammoth. Somewhat contrary to conventional paleontological models, which posit that the two species were highly divergent, the M. columbi mitogenome we obtained falls securely within a subclade of endemic North American M. primigenius.


Though limited, our data suggest that the two species interbred at some point in their evolutionary histories. One potential explanation is that woolly mammoth haplotypes entered Columbian mammoth populations via introgression at subglacial ecotones, a scenario with compelling parallels in extant elephants and consistent with certain regional paleontological observations. This highlights the need for multi-genomic data to sufficiently characterize mammoth evolutionary history. Our results demonstrate that the use of next-generation sequencing technologies holds promise in obtaining such data, even from non-cave, non-permafrost Pleistocene depositional contexts.