Jun 12, 2023 - News

Ancient wolf DNA could help unlock animal survival mysteries

A photo of animal teeth.

An American cheetah jaw discovered in Natural Trap Cave. Photo: Courtesy of Julie Meachen

Ancient DNA of sheep and wolves are among the latest animal remains being researched by a Des Moines University scientist who's been exploring Natural Trap Cave (NTC) in Wyoming for nearly a decade.

Why it matters: The work may help unravel mysteries about animal survival through evolution during the Ice Age.

Catch up fast: Located in the Big Horn Mountains of north-central Wyoming, NTC was first explored about 40 years ago.

  • Its 80-foot-deep sinkhole-type entrance is where lots of ancient animals plummeted to their deaths.
  • Bones have been preserved in its cool, damp environment, so much so that more than 30,000 specimens, mostly of extinct animals from North America and Eurasia, have been collected from the site.
Photos of a Des Moines scientist.
Julie Meachen's work inside Natural Trap Cave involves using free-hanging ropes to transcend its 80-foot cliff-like entrance. Photos: Courtesy of Meachen

State of play: Julie Meachen, an associate professor of anatomy at DSM University, tells Axios her recent work at NTC is increasingly focused on DNA.

  • Further studies are being planned on "stable isotopes" — minerals found in teeth and bones.
  • The information can help reconstruct things like the animals' diets to better understand current issues like adaptability to changing climate.

Learn more: Meachen discusses her work in a free presentation at Science Iowa's Science Festival Trail on June 18 at Raccoon River Park, 1pm-4pm.


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