Neck ribs in woolly mammoths provide clues about their decline and eventual extinction

March 25, 2014
The arrow indicates a large articulation facet of a cervical rib on a fossil cervical vertebra of a woolly mammoth of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam. Credit: Joris van Alphen

Researchers recently noticed that the remains of woolly mammoths from the North Sea often possess a 'cervical' (neck) rib—in fact, 10 times more frequently than in modern elephants (33.3% versus 3.3%). In modern animals, these cervical ribs are often associated with inbreeding and adverse environmental conditions during pregnancy. If the same factors were behind the anomalies in mammoths, this reproductive stress could have further pushed declining mammoth populations towards ultimate extinction.

Mammals, even the long-necked giraffes and the short-necked dolphins, almost always have seven vertebrae (exceptions being sloths, manatees and dugongs), and these vertebrae do not normally possess a rib. Therefore, the presence of a 'cervical rib' (a rib attached to a cervical vertebra) is an unusual event, and is cause for further investigation. A cervical rib itself is relatively harmless, but its development often follows genetic or environmental disturbances during early embryonic development. As a result, cervical ribs in most mammals are strongly associated with stillbirths and multiple congenital abnormalities that negatively impact the lifespan of an individual.

Researchers from the Rotterdam Museum of Natural History and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden examined mammoth and modern elephant from several European museum collections. "It had aroused our curiosity to find two cervical vertebrae, with large articulation facets for ribs, in the mammoth samples recently dredged from the North Sea. We knew these were just about the last mammoths living there, so we suspected something was happening. Our work now shows that there was indeed a problem in this population", said Jelle Reumer, one of the authors on the study published today in the open access journal PeerJ.

This is author Dr. Jelle Reumer holding one of the cervical vertebrae and indicating the location of the cervical rib. Credit: Natural History Museum Rotterdam

The incidence of abnormal cervical vertebrae in mammoths is much higher than in the modern sample, strongly suggesting a vulnerable condition in the species. Potential factors could include inbreeding (in what is assumed to have been an already small population) as well as harsh conditions such as disease, famine, or cold, all of which can lead to disturbances of embryonic and fetal development. Given the considerable birth defects that are associated with this condition, it is very possible that developmental abnormalities contributed towards the eventual extinction of these late Pleistocene mammoths.

The peer-reviewed study, entitled "Extraordinary incidence of cervical ribs indicates vulnerable condition in Late Pleistocene mammoths" was authored by Jelle Reumer of the Rotterdam Museum of Natural History and Clara ten Broek and Frietson Galis of Naturalis Biodiversity Center (Leiden).

Explore further: When vertebrae cross dress: How sloths got their long neck (w/ Video)

More information: Reumer et al. (2014), Extraordinary incidence of cervical ribs indicates vulnerable condition in Late Pleistocene mammoths. PeerJ 2:e318; DOI: 10.7717/peerj.318

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

From a very old skeleton, new insights on ancient migrations

October 9, 2015

Three years ago, a group of researchers found a cave in Ethiopia with a secret: it held the 4,500-year-old remains of a man, with his head resting on a rock pillow, his hands folded under his face, and stone flake tools surrounding ...

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convey were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.