Scientists Reconstruct the Genome of the Woolly Rhinoceros From Hyena Dung

Studying the genome of an extinct species through predator droppings? This is the ambitious endeavor undertaken by scientists who have made a major breakthrough in understanding the woolly rhinoceros, a prehistoric mammal.

The dung of a cave hyena yielded DNA from a woolly rhino

Scientific progress can sometimes take unexpected paths, as demonstrated by the discovery of European woolly rhinoceros DNA in fossilized feces – or coprolites – of cave hyenas! This discovery allowed researchers at the University of Constance in Germany to reconstruct the mitochondrial genome of this species, which disappeared about 10,000 years ago under still mysterious circumstances. The mitochondrial genome is only passed down from the mother and enables tracing the genetic lineage back to the origin of species.

A Significant Scientific Advancement

This serendipitous discovery, made while scientists were trying to identify plant DNA, should shed light on the origins of the split between European and Siberian woolly rhinoceros groups. It is particularly remarkable because it is the first time scientists have encountered a genome from the European group. The reason for this rarity lies in the higher temperatures in Europe compared to the Siberian permafrost, which degrade DNA more rapidly. Additionally, the technical challenge was significant: to differentiate the genetic material of the woolly rhinoceros from that of the hyena that consumed it and everything else in the hyena’s stomach, scientists used, among other methods, DNA sequencing. The extracted DNA was degraded, and they compared it to other modern and ancient genomes to restore it.

Many Promises lie Within Fossilized Feces

Their analysis, published in the journal Biology Letters, reveals that woolly rhinoceros split into two groups 450,000 years ago. Apart from this breakthrough, these coprolites from the Middle Paleolithic era (between 300,000 and 30,000 years before our era) contain a myriad of other resources that could shed light on the environment in which Neanderthals in the region lived. While the researchers exercise caution in their conclusions, emphasizing that this is a single sample, their results still suggest that a wealth of information may be hidden in coprolites, which have been largely overlooked by science.

Featured Image: Michael Long/SPL.