Everyone’s favorite extinct mammal might be close to our hearts for very good reason –an Israeli study suggests woolly mammoths and Neanderthals may have shared genetic traits.
The study, carried out by Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Ran Barkai and Meidad Kislev and recently published in Human Biology, attributes the human-elephant relationship to their mutual ecology and shared living environments.
According to the study, both species likely hailed from ancestors that came to Europe from Africa, and both became extinct around the same time.
“Neanderthals and mammoths lived together in Europe during the Ice Age. The evidence suggests that Neanderthals hunted and ate mammoths for tens of thousands of years and were actually physically dependent on calories extracted from mammoths for their successful adaptation,” Barkai said.
“They say you are what you eat. This was especially true of Neanderthals; they ate mammoths but were apparently also genetically similar to mammoths,” he added.
“It is now possible to try to answer a question no one has asked before: Are there genetic similarities between evolutionary adaptation paths in Neanderthals and mammoths?” Barkai says. “The answer seems to be yes.”
To assess the degree of resemblance, they reviewed three case studies of relevant gene variants and alleles — alternative forms of a gene that arise by mutation — associated with cold-climate adaptation found in the genomes of woolly mammoths and Neanderthals.
The first case study outlined the mutual appearance of the LEPR gene, related to thermogenesis and the regulation of adipose tissue and fat storage throughout the body. The second looked at keratin protein activity in both species. The third case study focused on skin and hair pigmentation variants.
“Our observations present the likelihood of resemblance between numerous molecular variants that resulted in similar cold-adapted epigenetic traits of two species, both of which evolved in Eurasia from an African ancestor,” Kislev explained.
“These remarkable findings offer supporting evidence for the contention regarding the nature of convergent evolution through molecular resemblance, in which similarities in genetic variants between adapted species are present.”