The news surprised the team, but the idea of a hybrid mammoth isn't as far-fetched as it may sound at first. The McMasters researchers were quick to point out that this sort of behavior, the intermingling of different-sized relatives within particular species, is still something that happens among modern elephants today. It is not unusual, they said, for African elephants to interbreed with the larger males of another herd that adjoins their own territory, creating offspring with features of both. These offspring are not typically infertile in the same way that cross-species offspring can be, allowing the mixed DNA to spread throughout groups.
This is just the latest revelation scientists have figured out as we get closer to understanding this extinct species. Scientists first announced they were getting closer to having the woolly mammoth's DNA strands sequenced back in 2008.
Researchers had been aided by finding mammoth remains in permafrost conditions that still had hair attached. The hair itself was used to analyze the animal's DNA, as bones can very often be contaminated with other things during the fossilization process, including parasites and bacteria. Hair, when found in permafrost, however, is more likely to be free of such contamination, allowing for better and closer study.
Discoveries of woolly mammoth remains continue to be fairly frequent, with one such find occurring in Russia just last month. Students digging in an area in the Yakutia region found the remains by accident.
As scientists come closer to being able to decode the mammoths' entire DNA sequence, more and more questions have been raised as to how this information could, or should, be used. Some researchers have suggested that a complete DNA sequence could be used to clone a woolly mammoth.
It was reported in January of this year that scientists in Japan intend to do just such a thing within the next five years or so, thereby bringing an animal that has been extinct in all forms for at least 3,700 years back into the present.