A Pup Pup mummy from the ancient Arctic

More than 50,000 years ago, a sandy lair collapsed on a baby wolf and killed it, closing it away from air and moisture, so that the baby’s body mummified in the cold.

It remained buried in permafrost until four years ago, when global warming and gold mining explored it in the Canadian Yukon, near Dawson.

He wanted a precious metal; what he found was paleontological gold.

This mummy is now on display at the Yukon Beringia Interpretation Center in Whitehorse – her body and fur intact, her lips curled back so that her teeth are visible in what looks a bit like a growl. The puppy is so well kept that it is easy to tell from the visual observation that it is a woman.

It also has a name, Zhur (meaning wolf) in the language of the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin people, in whose ancestral land the wolf was buried.

Among fossil animals, Zhur is “practically the best-preserved wolf ever found,” said Julie Meachen, a paleontologist and professor of anatomy at Des Moines University in Iowa, who led a team of specialists in using noninvasive techniques, including DNA, biochemistry. and bone structure, to study everything that could be learned about the ancient wolf cub. She and her colleagues published the results Monday in Current Biology.

Angela Perri, an archaeologist at Durham University in England who was not involved in the study but collaborated with Dr. Meachen on other projects, said the study of the chicks was an example of how scientists have come in recent years. get back in deep time and paint a vivid and detailed picture of an individual animal.

Researchers, she said, were able to ask not just “how were arctic wolves?” but “What was the life of this wolf?”

The first stroke of luck, Dr. Meachen said, was the discovery and preservation of the chicks. Due to climate change, the permafrost in the Yukon is melting, as it is around the world. And in Siberia, warming has revealed many valuable fossils.

The miner who found the mummified chick, Neil Loveless, notified Grant Zazula, a paleontologist with the Yukon Territorial Government, who contacted Dr. Meachen. She and Dr. Zazula brought together an interdisciplinary team of Canadian and American scientists to study Zhur.

Using a variety of methods, such as carbon dating, DNA studies of the evolutionary era of fossils, and chemical studies of the oxygen levels in the specimen, these were reduced to the time Zhur lived, by about 56,000 to 57,000. years ago. It was an easy time in an ice age called interstate, when temperatures were warm enough for rivers and streams in the area.

Looking at the X-rays of the bones and the development of the teeth in Zhur, they knew that he was between 6 and 7 weeks old at the time of his death. She was in good health and well fed, and the soil in which the lair was dug was sandy and therefore unstable, so the researchers concluded that she most likely died when the lair collapsed. The fate of her probable colleagues, mother and the rest of the pack is a mystery.

His DNA study showed he was a Pleistocene arctic wolf, the same species as today’s gray wolves, but not a direct ancestor. Just as humans came from Eurasia in multiple waves, so did wolves.

Her world was one of the great herbivores and other carnivores, many of them gone, such as sword-toothed cats, cave bears, and American lions. The wolves of the time preyed on large mammals, such as caribou, but a look at the chemicals preserved in Zhur’s bones showed that her diet was difficult for sea creatures, most likely salmon.

There are wolves today that live on salmon at certain times of the year, when fish swim in rivers and streams to lay eggs.

Once the coronavirus pandemic is over, you can travel to Whitehorse to see Zhur in person, but for a brief look, the interpretation center will have a live event on Facebook on Monday, December 21, at 3:00 p.m., with the team. experts who studied the fossils that emerge from their locations.