In an “exceptional” discovery, the mummified remains of two ice age mammals, a wolf pup and a caribou calf, have been uncovered in the wild, mountainous territory of Yukon in northern Canada.
Unearthed from the melting permafrost by miners digging for gold in Dawson City, the two mummies were carbon-dated to more than 50,000 years old and are “remarkably well-preserved, with hair, skin and muscle tissue intact,” according to a statement from the Government of Yukon.
While the discovery itself was made two years ago, the “spectacular” mummies were only unveiled to the public this week, during a ceremony held in Dawson on September 13, reports The Guardian.
“They’re spectacular, they’re world-class, and we’re definitely really excited about them,” said Yukon government paleontologist Grant Zazula.
Aside from being found in a fantastic condition, the two mummies also rank among the oldest mammal soft tissue specimens in the world, notes the BBC.
Additionally, the wolf pup is believed to the first mummy of its kind to ever emerge from any paleontological dig.
“To our knowledge, this is the only mummified ice age wolf ever found in the world,” Zazula pointed out.
The paleontologist explained that, although it’s not uncommon for ice age bones and fossils to turn up in Yukon, mummified animal remains are an exceptionally rare find.
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Of the two baby animals, the wolf pup is by far the better preserved. The mummy was found completely intact and exhibits striking details of its whole anatomy, from its head to its paws and tail.
“It’s beautiful, the fur, it’s got the cute little paws and tail and the curled upper lip showing its teeth. It’s spectacular,” Zazula told journalists at the big unveiling.
Discovered on July 13, 2016, the wolf pup is believed to have been around eight weeks at the time of its death.
“We want to do an ancient DNA test to see who it’s related to and look at its microbiome to see if there are gut bacteria still there,” said Julie Meachen, a carnivore morphologist at Des Moines University in Iowa who will be conducting research on the wolf pup mummy.
Meanwhile, the caribou calf is only partially preserved and essentially represents just the front half of the animal, with the head, torso, and front limbs.
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According to the Canadian media outlet CBC News, the caribou mummy was actually the first of the two to be discovered by Yukon gold miners. Found in June 2016, the specimen was dug up from an area that contained an ancient bed of volcanic ash dating back to 80,000 years ago.
“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 two animals are thought to have lived in the dry tundra ecosystem of the Canadian far north and probably shared the landscape with other ice age mammals such as wooly mammoths.
Given their incredible state of preservation, these rare mummies will help researchers learn more about how animals lived 50,000 years ago. Paleontologists might even be able to zero in on the animals’ cause of death, in addition to investigating their age, diet, and genetics.
The wolf pup and caribou calf are currently on display at the Danoja Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson City, which will house the precious mummies for the rest of the month.
The two specimens have been accepted for conservation by the Canadian Conservation Institute due to their “scientific significance,” specified the Yukon government.