In 2018 in a place called Belaya Gora in northeastern Siberia, a frozen bird was found in the ground. A sample of DNA was recovered from the bird, and analyzed by scientists at the Centre for Palaeogenetics at Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Reporting in Communications Biology, the researchers have identified the bird as a female ancestor of today's horned lark. It is about 46,000 years old.
"Not only can we identify the bird as a horned lark, the genetic analysis also suggests that the bird belonged to a population that was a joint ancestor of two subspecies of horned lark living today, one in Siberia, and one in the steppe in Mongolia. This helps us understand how the diversity of subspecies evolves," said Nicolas Dussex, a researcher at the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University.
This work can help researchers learn more about the mechanisms of evolution, as well as how the mammoth steppe (a biome that existed during the Last Glacial Maximum) changed into different areas like forest, tundra, and steppe or grassland biomes when the last Ice Age ended.
Northern Europe and Asia now exist where the mammoth steppe used to be, and it was home for many animals that are now extinct, including the woolly rhinoceros and the woolly mammoth. It has been suggested that the biome was made up of a variety of different environments including tundra, coniferous forest and steppe. After the Ice Age ended, zones formed, including today's northern tundra, middle boreal forest, and southern grasslands.
"Our results support this theory since the diversification of the horned lark into these subspecies seems to have happened about at the same time as the mammoth steppe disappeared," said Love Dalén, Professor at the Swedish Museum of Natural History and research leader at the Centre for Palaeogenetics.
The researchers are planning to map the entire genome of the recently-recovered horned lark, and compare it to all horned lark subspecies genomes.
At the Centre for Palaeogenetics, there are other samples recovered from the same place in Siberia, including an 18,000-year-old puppy that is currently under analysis; researchers want to know if it's a dog or wolf. Another specimen is a cave lion cub that's 50,000 years old.