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The number of cervical vertebrae in mammals is highly conserved at seven. We have shown that changes of this number are selected against due to a coupling with major congenital abnormalities (pleiotropic effects, (Galis 1999, Galis et al. 2006, Varela-Lasheras et al. 2011, ten Broek et al. 2012)). Here we show that the incidence of abnormal cervical vertebral numbers in Late Pleistocene mammoths from the North Sea is high (33.3%) and approximately 10 times higher than that of extant elephants (3.6%). Abnormal numbers were due to the presence of large cervical ribs on the seventh vertebra, which we deduced from the presence of rib articulation facets on sixth (posterior side) and seventh (anterior side) cervical vertebrae. The incidence of abnormal cervical vertebral numbers in mammoths appears to be much higher than in other mammalian species, apart from exceptional sloths, manatees and dugongs (Varela-Lasheras, Bakker et al. 2011) and indicates a vulnerable condition. We argue that the increased incidence of cervical ribs in mammoths is probably caused by inbreeding and adverse conditions that impact early pregnancies in declining populations close to extinction in the Late Pleistocene.
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