The cold, rocky Klondike region of northwestern Canada’s Yukon Territory is famed for its role in the late 19th-century Klondike Gold Rush.
The region was once a freezing tundra with no trees. Long-extinct animals including woolly mammoths and western camels roamed the area alongside mammals whose distant descendants still populate Arctic territories today, navigating the arid climate with mixed success.
In early September, scientists revealed a very precious discovery – perfectly preserved bodies of an ice age wolf pup and caribou calf, frozen intact.
They were found in summer 2016 by local miners near Dawson City while digging for gold and handed over to paleontologists for research and analysis.
The bodies were shipped to the University of Ottawa where they were carefully brought to room temperature and preserved. Then, they wound up back in front of Grant Zazula, Ph.D., a paleontologist with the Yukon government.
Both have been radiocarbon-dated to more than 50,000 years ago, making the state of their preservation all the more impressive. They are among the oldest mummified mammal soft tissue in the world, Zazula said.
“The miner, when he found the wolf pup, he thought, ‘Gee, it looks like a little dog that somehow got stuck in the permafrost’,” he says. “It looks like a taxidermied pet. It’s cute and tiny and has soft cuddly fur.”
Clearly, the wolf pup is the better-preserved of the two specimens, retaining everything from its fur to its tail and curled upper lip. It is estimated to have been about eight weeks old when it died.
The events that led to these rare, perfectly well-conserved corpses were likely rather sordid. For a body to be so well mummified it can last over 50,000 years, it needs to die fast and be buried quickly, before scavengers, bacteria, and the elements turn it to dust.
Apparently, this isn’t the first time the Canadian permafrost has yielded a spectacular mummified find. About 30 years ago, two miners uncovered the partial remains of a roughly 26,000-year-old Yukon horse, but as Zazula tells the Canadian Press, no significant soft-tissue specimens had emerged since.
Both specimens are currently on display in Dawson City and will eventually be sent to the Canadian Conservation Institute near Ottawa.