And mitochondrial genomes don’t include phenotypes, the information within the genetic code that might offer insight into whether, for example, mastodons had hair—a recent topic of debate brought up by paleontologist and paleoartist Mark Witton. “One of the hardest parts when we do ancient DNA is that there’s very little material from the actual animal left in the bone,” Karpinski explained. “When we deal with samples of these animals, we could be talking in some locations less than a percent of the total DNA.
Dick Mol, mammoth expert and research associate at the Natural History Museum Rotterdam in the Netherlands, has spent decades working with proboscidean fossils all over the globe. “The study by Emil Karpinski and colleagues is a milestone in paleontology,” he wrote in an email to Gizmodo. “Their [ancient DNA] research on these mastodon remains have shown that the distribution and development of the Mammut americanum is more complicated than is usually suggested.
To put that feat into perspective, there have been only two complete American mastodon mitochondrial genomes prior to this study. “It’s the first large-scale genetic study on megafauna browsers in North America.
Even more intriguing are three American mastodon fossils found in Alberta, Canada. “You get animals that are living more closely together tend to be more related,” noted Karpinski. “And then you have Alberta, which is doing something weird.
When asked if he was surprised by today’s results, Widga answered, “Floored, actually. “What we’re finding is basically the opposite pattern to what we discovered with North American mammoths,” he said in a phone interview with Gizmodo. “Before the discovery of the Pacific mastodon, you would just call everything ‘American mastodon. ’ And now, we realize that there is a lot more diversity than expected.
When Karpinski began, for example, regional variability in American mastodons had basically been neglected before last year’s discovery of the Pacific mastodon (Mammut pacificus).
And he credits paleontologist Jacob Enk, lead author on an important paper in 2016 that explored North American mammoth genetic diversity, for designing a method that vastly improves how scientists are able to isolate and amplify ancient DNA.
He was also co-author on the aforementioned paper published in 2016 that found that, even though North American mammoths have been classified as four different species based on morphological differences, at the genetic level, they are very similar populations.