A wolf pup believed to have lived about 57,000 years ago and found perfectly preserved in Canadian permafrost has provided researchers with a wealth of information about its life and the ecology of the species.
The mummified pup was found in 2016 by a gold miner in the thawing permafrost in Yukon, Canada, and was then given to Julie Meachen of Des Moines University, Iowa and her team for analysis. Freezing temperatures can preserve the organs and tissues of a dead animal and mummify it.
“I’ve never seen such a well-preserved mummy,” says Meachen. “I was over the moon and so excited when I was asked to work on it.”
The fur, organs, and bones of the mummy are all well preserved. The researchers found that the puppy was female and weighed just under 700 grams. They estimate she was seven weeks old when she died. At the same age, most modern wolves become independent of their mothers. The puppy was called Zhùr, which means “wolf” in Hän, a local First Nation language.
The researchers used DNA analysis and carbon dating to determine that the pup lived about 57,000 years ago during the last ice age, a time when polar and mountain ice sheets were extended across the earth. Meachen says wolves would normally eat musk ox and caribou during this time, but when the researchers analyzed the diet of zhùr, they found that it was mostly fish, especially salmon. This suggests that the pup and her mother hunted in rivers during their short lives, behavior that was still observed in modern wolves in this area during the summer months.
The team found that Zhùr’s genome has links to an ancient species believed to be the common ancestor of all modern gray wolves (wolf). “Wolves from Zhùr’s part of the world seem to have replaced most of the local wolf populations in Eurasia and America,” says Liisa Loog of Cambridge University.
How Zhùr died at such a young age is also a mystery. “There is no evidence that she starved and there is no physical damage to her body,” says Meachen. Instead, she suggests the pup was buried in her den when the entrance collapsed while her mother and siblings fled.
Although discoveries of such mummies are a great source for studying the past, such finds are only possible, according to Meachen, because the permafrost is melting as the world warms from climate change. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she says. “You’re excited and horrified at the same time.”
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