A group of Canadian miners inadvertently banished the mummified remains of two animals from the Ice Age, a caribou calf and a wolf cub. The extraordinary find was made while the miners were looking for gold in the west of the Yukon territory in Canada.
The two animal specimens, both with a carbon date of more than 50,000 years old, are remarkably well preserved, with intact skin, skin and muscle tissue. “They are spectacular, they are world class, and we are definitely very excited about them,” paleontologist Grant Zazula told CBC.
Although bones and fossils of the Ice Age can often be found, a modified corpse can rarely be found. “As far as we know, this is the only mummified wolf of the Ice Age that has been found in the world,” Zazula said.
Today, the Yukon region is covered with spruce forests, but during the Ice Age, the region was a dry and dusty tundra. A variety of large mammals roamed the icy meadows, including saber-toothed, mammoths and short-faced bears.
For several years there have been several gold mining operations near Dawson City, and it is common for miners to occasionally find fossilized bones of dead animals as they dig through permanently frozen layers of mud.
The finding and its subsequent study
This particular finding was made in June 2016 when a gold miner stumbled upon the caribou mummy and reported it to paleontologists. The scientists arrived at the site and recovered the mummified torso, the head and two frontal extremities.
A month later, the amazingly well-preserved wolf cub was found in another nearby mine. “The wolf cub looks exactly like a small stuffed puppy,” Zazula told Live Science. “It has tail, hair, legs, eyelids and lips, it’s spectacular,” he added.
Subsequently, the researchers cut pieces of skin from each animal to carry out radiocarbon tests. Both proved to be at least 50,000 years old, the limit for radiocarbon analysis.
However, the caribou was found near a layer of ash from a volcanic eruption 80,000 years ago, a better clue to its real age. “That probably makes it one of the oldest mammalian tissues in the world,” said Zazula, who added that more research is being done on the animals.
It’s relationship with the species of the present
For example, an analysis of elements such as carbon and nitrogen preserved in the hair and bones could help to know the diets of the creatures. Likewise, the ancient DNA could reveal how the animals in the Ice Age are related to the modern herds of caribou and gray wolves in Canada.
Both mummified specimens have been accepted by the Canadian Conservation Institute because of their scientific value, and are currently on display at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Center in the city of Dawson, where they will remain for the remainder of the month. Although the Yukon government says the specimens will eventually be incorporated into an exhibition at the Beringia Interpretation Center in Whitehorse.