Archaeologists discovered both the DNA of an extinct species of bears and an entirely new method of extracting samples. Credit: Devlin A. Gandy/University of Cambridge

In a first, Scientists Sequence 16,000-Year-Old Bear DNA From Cave Soil Samples

Archaeologists also discovered a new mechanism for detecting ancient DNA.

In one of the countless caves in Mexico, scientists were able to isolate DNA samples that belonged to extinct bear species. This is the first time such a study has been conducted. The scientists concluded that the soil samples retained the DNA of an Upper Paleolithic bear that used the cave as a toilet.

In fact, scientists have found and confirmed a new mechanism for detecting the DNA of ancient organisms like the newly discovered extinct bear species. Previously, it was considered possible to obtain it only from bone remains. Now, this can be done by examining soil samples of those territories where, according to scientists, ancient animals could have lived.

According to geneticist Eske Villerslev of the University of Copenhagen, they used very powerful methods of sequencing genetic profiles from fragments to obtain DNA.

As it turned out, not only bone formations can be of value, but also other genetic particles that are present in biological fragments. They can exist for more than 10 thousand years. The Chiquihuite Cave, where the specimens were found, is of historical importance.

In the past, archaeologists discovered about 2,000 stone tools and other remains in the cave. Analysis dated the tools to more than 25,000 years ago. This breakthrough discovery proves that people reached the Americas 15,000 years earlier than historians believed.

Now, archaeologists found out that the caves were in constant use over the millennia but not only by humans. Bone remains and traces of DNA showed the presence of various animals, including two bear species, bats, voles, and rats. These DNA samples were sequenced by scientists who were able to recreate the genomes of two bear species that lived during a certain period.

The curious fact here is that these caves were used as a toilet by these animals. Who would have thought that you can find such wonderful things about the past from prehistoric animal feces?

One of the DNA samples may have been from the ancestor of the modern American black bear, which still exists in the forests of North America to this day. The second DNA is of an extinct species of short-faced bear that is now considered to be one of the largest bears ever to exist. It became extinct at the end of the last ice age about 11 thousand years ago.

As a result, scientists can now learn much more details about these animals – for example, where they occupied in the family tree, how they migrated, and how far their lineage deviated from the line of common ancestors. Moreover, who knows how many other species could be discovered or rediscovered using these new methods.

For this particular case, scientists intend to recreate the images of these two bears in order to provide them for the formation of museum exhibits.

The team’s full research paper which was used for the creation of this article can be read here.

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Pedersen, M., Sanctis, B., Saremi, N., Sikora, M., Puckett, E., Gu, Z., . . . Willerslev, E. (2021, April 19). Environmental genomics of Late Pleistocene black bears and giant short-faced bears.
Pennisi, E., Voosen, P., O’Grady, C., Wadman, M., Servick, K., Moutinho, S., & Cho, A. (2021, April 19). Team recovers Ancient genomes from DIRT, revealing new history of North America’s bears.
ScienceDaily. (2021, April 19). Stone age black BEARS didn’t just defecate in the woods – they did it in a cave too.
Starr, M. (n.d.). Ancient bear dna sequenced from old cave dirt in historic first for science.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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