UCL News


Gene reveals mammoth coat colour

6 July 2006

The coat colour of mammoths that roamed the Earth thousands of years ago has been determined by scientists.

Some of the curly tusked animals would have sported dark brown coats, while others had pale ginger or blond hair.

The information was extracted from a 43,000-year-old woolly mammoth bone from Siberia using the latest genetic techniques.

Writing in the journal 'Science', the researchers said a gene called Mc1r was controlling the beasts' coat colours. …

Commenting, Pleistocene mammal expert Professor Adrian Lister [UCL Biology], said the study was of tremendous interest.

The preserved specimens of mammoth hair that had been unearthed were "usually a kind of orangey colour", but this could not be trusted, explained Professor Lister.

"In most textbooks of the woolly mammoth, hair is usually shown as auburn to orangey colour because that's the colour of the hair when its dug out of the ground, but that could be an artificial result due to the burial or the leaching out of pigment," he said.

"Whether they were brown or orange isn't hugely important; it's the precedent and the potential that's important to me."

Dr Mark Thomas [UCL Centre for Genetic Anthropology and UCL Biology], agreed: "It's the first time anybody has taken an extinct species and been able to say something about how the animal appears from its DNA.

"The possibilities from there are endless. For example, in future we might be able to look at genes that affect behaviour and come to conclusions about the animal's temperament."

Rebecca Morelle, BBC News Online