A team of researchers analyzing some incredibly well-conserved remains of a bird dating back to the Pleistocene period have determined that the exemplar is a horned lark, or a short lark, as they call it in Europe.
The bird was buried and frozen in permafrost close to the village of Belaya Gora, located in north-eastern Siberia, and was found by local fossil ivory hunters. They sent it for analysis to a team of specialists, including Nicholas Dussex and Love Dalén at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.
The Specimen Could Be An Ancestor of Today’s Two Lark Subspecies
Radiocarbon dating unveiled the fact that the specimen lived approximately 46,000 years ago, and genetic examination determined that the bird is a horned lark, or Eremophila alpestris, as per a study published on Friday in the journal Communications Biology.
Dalén said that the analysis suggested the specimen may be an ancestor to two subspecies of lark existing today, one roaming the regions of northern Russia and the other on the Mongolian steppe.
“This finding implies that the climatic changes that took place at the end of the last Ice Age led to formation of new subspecies,” he said.
The conservation of the bird is mainly due to the cold of the permafrost, said Dussex, but this particular exemplar is in incredibly good condition.
“The fact that such a small and fragile specimen was near intact also suggests that dirt/mud must have been deposited gradually, or at least that the ground was relatively stable so that the bird’s carcass was preserved in a state very close to its time of death,” said Dussex.
Revealing the Evolutionary Rate of Change in Larks
The following phase of research involves sequencing the specimen’s whole genome, Dalén said, which will unveil more details about its connection to today’s subspecies and indicate the pace of evolutionary change in larks.
Researchers working in the north-eastern area of Siberia have also discovered carcasses and body parts from other specimens, such as wolves, mammoths, and wooly rhinos. According to Dussex, these fossils enable specialists to regain DNA and even RNA at times, a nucleic acid existing in all living cells.
“This, in turn, will open new opportunities to study the evolution of ice age fauna and understand their responses to climate change over the past 50-10 thousands of years ago,” added Dussex.
The horned lark was found in the same place as an 18,000-year-old frozen puppy, which Dalén and Dussex are also analyzing.