Museum's mammoth teeth could help solve history mystery

Dr Simon Jackson, collections and learning curator at Ipswich Museum

Dr Simon Jackson, collections and learning curator at Ipswich Museum with one of the mammoth teeth. - Credit: JASON NOBLE LDRS

Could 200,000-year-old artefacts at Ipswich Museum hold the secrets to the history of mammoths in Europe?

That’s the question experts are hoping to answer as they prepare to sample Suffolk collections this summer in the hope of finding key DNA.

While it is by no means certain that any DNA will be found, if it is, it could be among the oldest DNA for a mammoth found in Europe.

The steppe mammoth teeth at Ipswich Museum due to be sampled for DNA

The steppe mammoth teeth at Ipswich Museum due to be sampled for DNA - Credit: JASON NOBLE LDRS

Researchers from the Natural History Museum and the Centre for Paleogenetics at Stockholm University will take samples of around one cm cubed from eight of Ipswich’s 200,000-year-old mammoth molar teeth this summer.

Dr Simon Jackson, collections and learning curator at Ipswich Museum, says it is an important study.

“We are looking to see if DNA has been preserved in these mammoth teeth,” he said.

“It’s worth emphasising just how significant it would be finding DNA in these mammoth teeth, because the oldest ones we have in Britain from mammoth teeth are some 50,000 years and nothing of 200,000 years ago has been found in mammoth teeth in Europe.

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“We are basically trying to uncover the evolutionary history of the mammoth, and in particular the steppe mammoth which is a larger species of mammoth that lived before the woolly mammoth.”

The woolly mammoth at Ipswich Museum. Picture: JASON NOBLE LDRS

The woolly mammoth at Ipswich Museum. - Credit: JASON NOBLE LDRS

The project came about as part of the museum’s work with Arts Council England to get parts of its geology collections designated as nationally important. That includes work to demonstrate its use for research purposes.

“We already had a long-standing relationship with the Natural History Museum, and we were looking at how we could use our collections more,” Dr Jackson said.

“They told us about this project they were working on in Sweden – we got quite excited and wanted to get involved.”

Ipswich’s collection comprises finds from local sites across Suffolk, including the Stoke and Maidenhall areas of Ipswich, Brundon, Stutton and Harkstead.

They come from the interglacial period between ice ages where the environment was wetter and warmer.

Older DNA has been found in mammoth teeth – up to around one million years old – but that was found in northeast Siberia where permafrost preserved it.

Dr Jackson said finding DNA in what is called temperate conditions – like the ones in Ipswich’s collection – could be groundbreaking for future research.

“On an international scale it will be the oldest mammoth DNA found of this age across Europe and in Britain, so that in itself is really important, and I think it is something the community of Ipswich can also be proud of – that our collection which belongs to them has led to this research.

The steppe mammoth teeth at Ipswich Museum due to be sampled for DNA

The steppe mammoth teeth at Ipswich Museum due to be sampled for DNA - Credit: JASON NOBLE LDRS

“It’s also what it could help us understand about mammoth evolution and the steppe mammoth and its adaptations to the environment in which it lived.”

While sampling is set to get underway this summer – hopefully in July, the work on searching for the DNA and sequencing it will take much longer, probably months or even years.

But if preserved DNA cannot be found, the process itself is set to be an important part of informing future research of European mammoths.

Dr Jackson added: “Sometimes you need to find what works from what doesn’t work – it doesn’t mean other environments may not be conducive to finding it.

Ipswich Museum. Picture: JASON NOBLE LDRS

Ipswich Museum. - Credit: JASON NOBLE LDRS

“It’s one of the most exciting projects I have worked on, it really has international significance and a huge amount of potential if we do find it.

“It could potentially open up the door to other museums looking at their collections to see if they can find DNA in their collections back to 200,000 years. And who knows, if we look back further we might find it too.”