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: Sticking their necks out for evolution: Why sloths and manatees have unusually long (or short) necks

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

Metacognition training boosts gen chem exam scores

October 20, 2017

It's a lesson in scholastic humility: You waltz into an exam, confident that you've got a good enough grip on the class material to swing an 80 percent or so, maybe a 90 if some of the questions go your way.

Scientists see order in complex patterns of river deltas

October 19, 2017

River deltas, with their intricate networks of waterways, coastal barrier islands, wetlands and estuaries, often appear to have been formed by random processes, but scientists at the University of California, Irvine and other ...

Six degrees of separation: Why it is a small world after all

October 19, 2017

It's a small world after all - and now science has explained why. A study conducted by the University of Leicester and KU Leuven, Belgium, examined how small worlds emerge spontaneously in all kinds of networks, including ...

Ancient DNA offers new view on saber-toothed cats' past

October 19, 2017

Researchers who've analyzed the complete mitochondrial genomes from ancient samples representing two species of saber-toothed cats have a new take on the animals' history over the last 50,000 years. The data suggest that ...

0 comments

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.