A wolf pup thought 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 thawing permafrost in Yukon, Canada, by a gold miner in 2016, then handed over to Julie Meachen at Des Moines University, Iowa, and her team for analysis. Freezing temperatures can preserve the organs and tissue of a dead animal, mummifying it.
“I’ve never seen such a well-preserved mummy before,” 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 pup was female and weighed just under 700 grams. They estimate that she was seven weeks old when she died, the same age most modern wolves become independent from their mothers. The pup has been named her Zhùr, meaning “wolf” in Hän, a local First Nation language.
The researchers used DNA analysis and carbon dating to determine that the pup lived around 57,000 years ago, during the Last Glacial Period, a time when polar and mountain ice sheets were extensive across Earth. Meachen says wolves in this period would typically eat musk oxen and caribou, but when the researchers analysed Zhùr’s diet, they found it mostly consisted of fish, particulalyr salmon. This suggests the pup and her mother were hunting in rivers during her short life, a behaviour still seen in modern wolves in that area during the summer months.
The team found that Zhùr’s genome has links with an ancient species that is thought to be the common ancestor of all modern grey wolves (Canis lupus). “Wolves from Zhùr’s part of the world seem to have replaced most of the local wolf populations in Eurasia and the Americas,” says Liisa Loog at the University of Cambridge.
How Zhùr died at such a young age is also a mystery. “There’s no evidence she starved to death and there’s no physical damage to her body,” says Meachen. Instead, she proposes that the pup was entombed in her den when the entrance collapsed while her mother and siblings escaped.
Although discoveries of mummies like this are great resources for studying the past, Meachen says such finds are only possible 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.”
Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.3678693
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