Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Were mammoths blondes and brunettes?

In most illustrations of ice-age animals, the huge, shaggy mammoths are just plain brown. But if you are doing your own illustration and want to mix things up a little, science may be on your side. Researchers have made a discovery that makes them think mammoths might have come in both light and dark colors.

Humans and other mammals each have two copies of a gene called Mc1r. This gene helps control hair color.

Michael Hofreiter of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and his colleagues sequenced some of the DNA from a mammoth bone that was preserved in the frozen ground or "permafrost" in Siberia. They compared this information with DNA sequences from other mammoths, looking specifically at variations in the Mc1r gene.

The authors figured out that mammoths could have had two versions of the gene, one that was fully active and another that was partially active. Based on how we know the gene works in mammals today, it seems likely that mammoths with the partially active version of the gene had light coats, while mammoths with the fully active gene had dark coats.

The researchers don't know, though, exactly what color the mammoths were. The lighter animals could have had yellow or reddish hair, and the dark ones might have been black or brown -- so there's still room to use your imagination.

These findings appear in the 7 July 2006 issue of the journal Science. In the same issue, another research team shows that a very small DNA change in the Mc1r gene also change coat color in Florida beach mice, making them lighter colored than their mainland cousins. This helps camouflage the mice so they can hide in the sand dunes from hawks and owls.