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Painting of a woolly mammoth

The last mammoths were in trouble. Isolated on Wrangel Island, a spit of land off the coast of Siberia, the last pack on Earth was sickly and weak from centuries of chronic inbreeding. The prehistoric pachyderms were no longer as fertile as they once were, their coats took on a strange translucence, and some suffered neurological problems. About 4,000 years ago, the species was wiped out for good. 

Today, the only mammoth you’re likely to see is a hulking reconstruction in a museum — the size and structure of its bones drawing an outline of the beast. But there’s more to mammoths than their skeletons. In a time when the possibility of bringing the pachyderms back to life regularly makes headlines, researchers are studying how the mammoths lived and died through their genes as well as their bones.

The Ice Age icons are model organisms for paleogenetics, a relatively new field following advances in technology that allow pieces of ancient DNA to be identified, duplicated and studied. Mammoths were once common creatures — widespread across the Northern Hemisphere —... see more