In 2018, a well-preserved frozen bird was found in the ground in the Belaya Gora area of north-eastern Siberia. Researchers at the Centre for Palaeogenetics, a new research center at Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History, have studied the bird and found that the bird is a 46,000-year-old female horned lark.
Scientists recovered the DNA from the bird. The genetic analysis also suggests that the bird belonged to a population that was a joint ancestor of two sub species of horned lark living today, one in Siberia, and one in the steppe in Mongolia.
Nicolas Sussex, scientist at the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University, said, “The results can contribute to explaining the evolution of subspecies, as well as how the mammoth steppe transformed into the tundra, forest and steppe biomes at the end of the last Ice Age.”
“The study helps us understand how the diversity of subspecies evolves.”
The outcome has significance on another level too. During the last Ice Age, the mammoth steppe spread out over northern Europe and Asia. The steppe was home to now-extinct species, for example, the wooly mammoth and the wooly rhinoceros. As indicated by one hypothesis, this ecosystem was a mosaic of habitats, for example, steppe, tundra, and coniferous forest. Toward the finish of the last Ice Age, the mammoth steppe was divided into the biotopes we know today – tundra in the north, taiga in the middle, and steppe in the south.
Love Dalén, Professor at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, said, “Our results support this theory since the diversification of the horned lark into these sub species seems to have happened about at the same time as the mammoth steppe disappeared.”
In the future, scientists aim to map the complete genome of the 46,000-year-old lark and compare it with the genomes from all sub species of horned larks.
Love Dalén said, “The new laboratory facilities and the intellectual environment at the Centre for Palaeogenetics will be helpful in these analyses.”
The study is published in the journal Communications Biology.