Ancient DNA reveals late survival of mammoth and horse in interior Alaska

James Haile, Duane G. Froese, Ross D.E. MacPhee, Richard G. Roberts, Lee J. Arnold, Alberto V. Reyes, Morten Rasmussen, Rasmus Nielsen, Barry W. Brook, Simon Robinson, Martina Demuro, M.Thomas P. Gilbert, Kasper Munch, Jeremy J. Austin, Alan Cooper, Ian Barnes, Per Möller, Eske Willerslev

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    Abstract

    Causes of late Quaternary extinctions of large mammals (" megafauna") continue to be debated, especially for continental losses, because spatial and temporal patterns of extinction are poorly known. Accurate latest appearance dates (LADs) for such taxa are critical for interpreting the process of extinction. The extinction of woolly mammoth and horse in northwestern North America is currently placed at 15,000-13,000 calendar years before present (yr BP), based on LADs from dating surveys of macrofossils (bones and teeth). Advantages of using macrofossils to estimate when a species became extinct are offset, however, by the improbability of finding and dating the remains of the last-surviving members of populations that were restricted in numbers or con-fined to refugia. Here we report an alternative approach to detect 'ghost ranges' of dwindling populations, based on recovery of ancient DNA from perennially frozen and securely dated sediments (sedaDNA). In such contexts, sedaDNA can reveal the molecular presence of species that appear absent in the macrofossil record. We show that woolly mammoth and horse persisted in interior Alaska until at least 10,500 yr BP, several thousands of years later than indicated from macrofossil surveys. These results contradict claims that Holocene survival of mammoths in Beringia was restricted to ecologically isolated high-latitude islands. More importantly, our finding that mammoth and horse overlapped with humans for several millennia in the region where people initially entered the Americas challenges theories that megafaunal extinction occurred within centuries of human arrival or were due to an extraterrestrial impact in the late Pleistocene.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)22352-22357
    Number of pages6
    JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
    Volume106
    Issue number52
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 29 Dec 2009

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    Haile, J., Froese, D. G., MacPhee, R. D. E., Roberts, R. G., Arnold, L. J., Reyes, A. V., Rasmussen, M., Nielsen, R., Brook, B. W., Robinson, S., Demuro, M., Gilbert, M. T. P., Munch, K., Austin, J. J., Cooper, A., Barnes, I., Möller, P., & Willerslev, E. (2009). Ancient DNA reveals late survival of mammoth and horse in interior Alaska. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(52), 22352-22357. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0912510106