Ancient DNA Traces Evolutionary History of the Caribbean “Island Murderer”

September 19, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

The Solenodon taxa is the closest living relative to the extinct Nesophontes.
Photo credit: Natural History Museum, London UK

Bones in ancient owl feces yield DNA of a notorious insect killer.

In an owl roost in the Caribbean, scientists discovered ancient owl pellets. In those pellets, they found skeletal remains of an extinct West Indian mammal called Nesophontes, and from that mammal’s skull, they extracted DNA.

By analyzing that ancient genetic material, the researchers were able to shed new light on Nesophontes’ evolutionary family tree. Their findings are published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

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The cute and fuzzy insect eater, whose name means “island murderer” — a nod to its voracious appetite — went extinct around the 16th century, possibly due to competition with rats that were carried over by Spanish ships. "Nesophontes was just one of the dozens of mammals that went extinct in the Caribbean during recent times," said study co-author Ian Barnes, of London’s Natural History Museum, in a press release.

Armed with genetic samples, the researchers discovered Nesophotes’ long-lost closest relatives were the solendons — another group of Caribbean insectivore that are venomous, and still alive and kicking back on the islands.

While earlier research dated the solendons back more than 70 million years, the Nesophotes are now believed to have split from the solendon line as recently as 43 million years ago, and as long ago as 68 million years ago — the latter estimate would place the oldest Nesophontes right at the tail end of the Age of Dinosaurs.

But what’s really impressive about this study is that the researchers managed to extract and sequence DNA that has been subject to the heat and humidity of the Caribbean for millions of years.

"Once we'd dealt with the tiny size of the bone samples, the highly degraded state of the DNA, and the lack of any similar genomes to compare to, the analysis was a piece of cake," said study lead author Selina Brace, also from London’s Natural History Museum.

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