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Collapse of the mammoth-steppe in central Yukon as revealed by ancient environmental DNA

Ancient environmental DNA reconstructs the Pleistocene-Holocene ecological transition using permafrost sediments from central Yukon and finds evidence for the mid-Holocene survival of horse and woolly mammoth

Dec 08, 2021

Authors: Tyler J. Murchie, Alistair J. Monteath, Matthew E. Mahony, George S. Long, Scott Cocker, Tara Sadoway, Emil Karpinski, Grant Zazula, Ross D. E. MacPhee, Duane Froese & Hendrik N. Poinar

Nature Communications volume 12, Article number: 7120 (2021)

Abstract

The temporal and spatial coarseness of megafaunal fossil records complicates attempts to to disentangle the relative impacts of climate change, ecosystem restructuring, and human activities associated with the Late Quaternary extinctions. Advances in the extraction and identification of ancient DNA that was shed into the environment and preserved for millennia in sediment now provides a way to augment discontinuous palaeontological assemblages. Here, we present a 30,000-year sedimentary ancient DNA (sedaDNA) record derived from loessal permafrost silts in the Klondike region of Yukon, Canada. We observe a substantial turnover in ecosystem composition between 13,500 and 10,000 calendar years ago with the rise of woody shrubs and the disappearance of the mammoth-steppe (steppe-tundra) ecosystem. We also identify a lingering signal of Equus sp. (North American horse) and Mammuthus primigenius (woolly mammoth) at multiple sites persisting thousands of years after their supposed extinction from the fossil record.

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Listing image credits: Julius Csotonyi, 2021, Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre