A female wolf mummy, perfectly preserved as it has been trapped in permafrost for 57,000 years, eventually gives up some of its secrets, including how the gray wolf died and ended up alone in the ice for a long time. follow.
Mummified Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) was discovered by a gold miner who excavated permafrost in the Yukon, Canada, in July 2016, in the Klondike gold fields near Dawson.
“It’s the most complete wolf specimen ever found in the ice age,” said lead author Julie Meachen, an associate professor of anatomy at Des Moines University in Iowa. “All her soft tissues, hair, skin, even her little nose are still there. She’s complete. And that’s very rare.”
Related: Photos: Perfectly preserved chickens, dug up in Siberian permafrost
Several types of analysis – including radiocarbon dating, DNA sampling and measuring the levels of different versions, or isotopes, of oxygen – were confirmed when the chick died. X-rays of the skeleton and teeth also showed that Zhùr (meaning “wolf” in the Hän language of the local people Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in) was only 7 weeks old when he met his premature end.
The ancient past
In addition to being the most complete ice wolf ever discovered, Zhùr’s mummy was also particularly important to researchers as it was discovered in North America.
“These types of specimens may be quite common in Siberia, but they are much harder to reach,” than the remains found in the Yukon, Meachen told Live Science. As such, the remains were much easier to access and study and also provided a rare opportunity to see where North American wolves come from, she said.
Meachen and colleagues reconstructed Zhùr’s mitochondrial genome – the genome found in the energy-producing structures of cells called mitochondria, which runs along the maternal line – finding similarities with both the Beringian wolves, an extinct group that lived in the Yukon and Ancient Alaska, as well as in the Russian gray wolves. The relationship of chicks with individuals from North America and Eurasia is evidence of the ancient continental mix over the Bering Land Bridge, an ancient land bridge that once connected Alaska and Russia, the researchers said.
Having such a specimen intact to study also gave researchers the opportunity to look at what wolves ate in the ice age.
“When I looked at X-rays and could see her intestines, it gave me a shiver,” Meachen said. “I had never seen a 57,000-year-old gut.” Although, in the end, the bone analysis, not the stomach contents, allowed the team to reconstruct Zhùr’s diet.
During his short life, Zhùr fed on mostly aquatic foods, such as the Chinook salmon that currently originates in the Klondike River, they discovered. This is not uncommon in modern wolves, which have been shown to switch seasonally to aquatic diets in Alaska. However, scientists had assumed that the Yukon wolves ate mainly bison or musk oxen during the ice age.
One of the biggest mysteries left around Zhùr is how she was mummified and why she ended up alone. The researchers hypothesized that she was killed when her lair collapsed on top of her. This would explain why the remains are so perfectly preserved, as they would have been instantly buried in a cold, dry and airtight environment.
But if she died that way, the question arises – where was the rest of her family? Given her age, it seems unlikely that she would ever have been in the lair without her mother or siblings.
“Maybe my mother and siblings were out of the den when she collapsed, so Zhùr was left alone in the lair,” Meachen said. “It may have been a single chick, but that would be rare, usually wolves have several cubs at a time,” she explained, but ultimately admits that, “It’s impossible to say for sure.”
Findings like this could become more common as the globe warms and once the solid permafrost begins to thaw and reveal the buried secrets.
“We are always excited when we make such discoveries,” Meachen said, “but it is an indication that the world is warming and that this is not good for our environment. The planet is hurting.”
The new study was published in the journal on December 21 Current biology.
Originally published on Live Science.