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Mammoths may have gone extinct much earlier than DNA suggests

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Some ancient DNA may be leading paleontologists astray in attempts to date when woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos went extinct.

In 2021, an analysis of plant and animal DNA from sediment samples from the Arctic, spanning about the last 50,000 years, suggested that mammoths survived in north-central Siberia as late as about 3,900 years ago (SN: 1/11/22). That’s much later than when the youngest mammoth fossil found in continental Eurasia suggests the animals died out; it dates to about 10,700 years ago. Only on Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia and the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea were mammoths known to have survived later.

The finding was one of several in recent years using ancient DNA found in sediment and other environmental material to suggest new insights into animal extinctions. Genetic evidence from woolly rhinos in Eurasia and horses in Alaska have also indicated that these animals remained thousands of years longer in some areas than was thought.

But thousands of years is also how long the animals’ large bones can linger on the ground…

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