Perfectly Preserved Ice Age Animals Still Have Skin, Muscle, and Hair


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Partial remains of a perfectly preserved caribou found in Klondike gold mine (Photo Credit: Govt of Yukon)

The Klondike region in Canada’s Yukon territory, which is famous for its gold mines, was once home to a large variety of animals. They included the long-extinct saber-toothed cats and woolly mammoths, as well as creatures like gray wolves, whose descendants still roam the Arctic territories. Hence, it is not uncommon for miners to stumble upon fossilized remains of the Ice Age inhabitants while unearthing the precious metal.

However, the mummified remains of a caribou calf and wolf pup, unveiled in Dawson City, Yukon on September 13, 2018, are among the oldest-known specimens found with perfectly-preserved skin, muscle, and hair. The wolf pup is also the only one of its kind discovered to date.

The chain of events leading to the astonishing discoveries began in June 2016 when a gold miner noticed the remains of the caribou and alerted local paleontologists. When the scientists carefully unearthed the area, they discovered the mammal’s mummified torso, head, and two front limbs. A month later, while experts were still marveling at the pristine caribou remains, a worker at a nearby mine happened upon the fossils of a wolf pup. This time, however, the animal, estimated to be just eight weeks old, was preserved in its entirety. Grant Zazula, the paleontologist for the government of Yukon, told Live Science, “The wolf pup looks exactly like a taxidermied little puppy. It's got a little tail, hair, paws, eyelids, and lips. It's spectacular."

Perfectly preserved wolf pup complete with hair, paws, tail, eyelids, and lips (Photo Credit: Government of Yukon)

The astounding find thrilled scientists worldwide. Elsa Panciroli, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Ice age wolf bones are relatively common in the Yukon, but having an animal preserved with skin and fur is just exceptional – you just want to reach out and stroke it. It’s an evocative glimpse into the ice age world.”

Radiocarbon testing conducted on skin samples from each fossil determined the animals had lain on the ground for at least 50,000 years, which is the current limit for radiocarbon analysis. However, given that the caribou was discovered near a layer of volcanic ash that dates back 80,000 years, the scientists suspect that may be a better indication of its actual age. "These are ashes that are found in the permafrost from volcanoes in Alaska that erupted during the ice age," said Zazula. "We think this is some of the oldest mummified soft tissue in the entire world."

The researchers next hope to reconstruct the animals’ diets by analyzing elements like carbon and nitrogen preserved in the hair and bone. They also hope to test the mammals’ DNA to obtain insights into how closely the Ice Age animals are related to the modern-day caribou and Canadian gray wolf.

Close-up image of the Wolf pup’s head, jaw, and teeth (Photo Credit: Govt. of Yukon)

The scientifically significant discoveries also hold a special place among the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, an indigenous group in the Yukon, who believe the caribou played an integral part in feeding and clothing their people for thousands of years. "The wolf maintains balance within the natural world, keeping the caribou healthy. These were an amazing find, and it's a great opportunity to work collaboratively with the Government of Yukon and our community partners." the Chief of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Roberta Joseph stated.

After spending the remainder of September on display in Dawson City, the precious fossils, which are under the supervision of the Canadian Conservation Institute, have been incorporated into a permanent exhibit at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse, Yukon.



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