The quest for the precious metal in the Yukon region of Canada ended with a surprising outcome when Neil Loveless, a gold miner, discovered the oldest and most complete wolf mummy.
As soon as he spotted the frozen juvenile female pup in permafrost, he placed her in a freezer. The wolf mummy is believed to be a part of that ecosystem which was home to American mastodons and other Pleistocene megafauna. The local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people called the 57000-year-old pup Zhur.
“In Siberia, preservation like this is fairly common because of the way the permafrost preserves things there, which is way less common in the Yukon, Alaska, and other parts of North America,” says Des Moines University paleontologist Julie Meachen, who is the lead author of a study describing Zhur published today in the journal Current Biology.
“The preservation looks amazing,” says University of Copenhagen paleontologist Ross Barnett.
“She tells us a lot,” Meachen says, from her age at death—seven weeks—to what she was eating.
When was she alive?
The lost population of the Zhur used to live during the interglacial period.
“To have such extraordinary preservation of a carnivore is a unique situation to look into Ice Age ecosystems from a predator’s point of view,” says McMaster University paleogeneticist Tyler Murchie, who was not involved in the study.
“Zhur is from a time period that isn’t very well-known in the Yukon in terms of mummies,” Barnett says.
“Ancient DNA repeatedly demonstrates how much more complex evolutionary histories and paleoecology are than we might otherwise derive from studies of bones and fossils,” Murchie says.
What led to her death?
The body of the Zhur narrates everything about her life. She was about seven weeks old when she breathed her last. The geochemical signatures found in her teeth tell us that she had subsisted on meals from the river. Other than the discovered Zhur, many modern wolves in Alaska survive on similar diets. The Zhur seems to have died due to the collapse of the den. The incident would have created a favorable situation for exceptional preservation.
“Ancient DNA is bringing to life the dynamism of the Late Pleistocene that was mostly invisible from just the bones,” Barnett says.