46,000-Year-Old Frozen Bird Carcass Sheds Light on Evolution

It’s common to glimpse all kinds of bizarre creatures in this day and internet age, many of whom do a fine job of demonstrating the physiological manifestations of evolution thanks to their unique, environmentally tweaked bodies. But finding a bird carcass that was frozen over 46,000 years ago, preserved well enough to possibly allow for the complete sequencing of its genome, that’s something that doesn’t come along every day. (Which is great, because that would be highly disconcerting.)

In a paper recently published in the journal, Communications Biology, which comes via CNN, researchers offered their findings after studying the nearly intact Pleistocene bird carcass extensively, and even sequencing its complete mitochondrial genome. The authors, including Nicolas Dussex, David W.G. Stanton, et al. from the Centre for Palaeogenetics at Stockholm University, noted in the paper’s abstract that the bird was found in the Siberian permafrost, and was able to be radiocarbon dated to somewhere between, roughly speaking, 44,000 and 49,000 years ago. It was so well preserved that they were even able to identify it as a female horned lark.

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Nicolas Dussex

The prehistoric bird carcass is an important discovery for scientific research in multiple fields. It will help to shed light not only on how a diversity of subspecies evolves in response to environmental shifts, but also on how the mammoth steppe, Earth’s most extensive biome during the Last Glacial Period—spanning, geographically, from Spain, through Eurasia, to Canada—split apart into the “biotopes” we know today. For those unfamiliar with the term, biotopes are “uniform environmental conditions providing a living place for a specific assemblage of plants and animals,” and mammoth steppe split apart into three different ones: tundra in the north, steppe in the south, and taiga in the middle.

Because genetic analyses suggest that this particular bird-cicle was a member of a population that branched off into two subspecies of horned lark, still alive today in Siberia and Mongolia respectively, the researchers say it can help them to glean how that bifurcation occurred in conjunction with the split of the mammoth steppe into the three aforementioned biotopes. Presumably by having a genetic ancestor, the researchers will be able to compare its DNA with that of the disparate, living subspecies to see how their respective environments changed their genomes, although that’s not exactly clear.

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The researchers say the goal now will be to sequence the dead bird’s entire genome, so that they can compare it to those of all existing horned lark subspecies. Once they’ve done that, they’ll be able to see how the bird’s genome evolved in response to the climate changes that occurred when the mammoth steppe became segmented. And that will in turn help them to understand how species in general response to climate changes. A vital insight for any creatures on Earth who may be entering a new epoch.

What do you think about this 46,000-year-old frozen bird carcass? Do you think its fully sequenced genome will reveal the answers to countless evolutionary mysteries, or should researchers be more focused on humans and their freaky “ghost lineages”? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Feature image: Communications Biology / Nicolas Dussex, et al. 

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