The source of the genetics: searching for the remains of the world’s large land mammals.

By Laura S. Weyrich

Our ancient animal, human, plant, and even bacterial samples are obtained from around the world and, though we conduct much of our work in ACAD’s ancient DNA laboratories, we do get the chance to visit some of the amazing places where ancient DNA may be lurking. One of Alan Cooper’s key interests is the extinction of the world’s megafauna (i.e. the super large mammals that roamed the planet thousands of years ago). Recently, Alan and several of his American collaborators were successful in a National Science Foundation grant to excavate Natural Trap Cave, in Wyoming, USA, to obtain megafaunal bones of extinct animals, such as the American cheetah, American lion, North American camel, Arctodus (scary looking short-faced bear), and Harlan’s muskox, each of which went extinct in the Pleistocene, around 10,000 years ago.

The American lion. 25% bigger than the African lion! Credit: Sergiodlarosa

The American lion. 25% bigger than the African lion! Credit: Sergiodlarosa

Each of these animals were discovered in the original excavations lead by  Dr. Larry Martin, University of Kansas and Dr. B. Miles Gilbert, University of Missouri from 1974 to 1985. This year, from July 25 through August 5, a team of about twenty archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, and ancient DNA specialists from around the world will descend upon the cave and continue that excavation and find new examples of these amazing creatures.


Once we have the megafaunal bones from the cave, we have three main research questions:

1)    Was each animal’s population genetically diverse before the time of extinction? (If each species was not very diverse, it suggests that whatever caused them to go extinct started happening before the big Pleistocene extinction date (approx. 10,000 years ago)).

2)    Did the animals living in Wyoming look the same as their relatives in the far north? (Looking different tells us that the animals were evolving to best fit their environment. Then the question is, what are those differences and why do they offer advantages?).

3)    Do we see major genetic changes at the same time as climatic changes? (If so, it suggests that the animals changed in response to the changing climate).


The original team working away. Our turn soon! Credit: Catherine Sherman

Being from the Midwest myself, having grown up only two hours from Natural Trap Cave, I was enlisted as the local guide for the trip. I will be photographing the work and asking the resident paleoanthropologists, archaeologists, and ancient DNA experts questions. Do you have a question you’d like to ask? Leave a comment below and we’ll get them to answer it! Check back soon for our experiences at the cave and the answers to your questions!

Get the latest update and photos at #ntcave14  / #naturaltrapcave

View Professor Alan Cooper as he answers some frequently asked questions on site at the Natural Trap Cave about ancient DNA sampling, personal favourite projects, and methods and protocols to avoid modern DNA contamination.


1 thought on “The source of the genetics: searching for the remains of the world’s large land mammals.

  1. camidietsch

    Hello ACAD,
    Is there any specific part of the body of the animal that is best to test DNA, or any will do?
    And also, how do you manage the trip back to Australia, which is quite a long way from Wyoming and a very strict custom ahead?
    Have you ever experienced an issue at the border with your sample?
    What is the size of your sample and where do all the samples go actually? I guess you take only a small part, so what do you do with the rest?


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