Miners Strike Ice Age Gold Finding a mummified wolf cub

A new study has revealed exciting information about a mummified wolf cub found in Canadian permafrost. Scientists say the tiny creature discovered by miners in the Yukon is “the most complete wolf mummy there is.” They have been studying this excellent specimen for a few years now and have finally released details on various aspects of the cub’s life, including her age, diet and the likely cause of her death.

The wolf cub story made headlines in 2018, announcing that the cub and a caribou calf were both discovered by miners looking for gold in the Yukon. The discovery of the two Ice Age animals in such an amazing state is rare and has excited scientists and the local community. The mummified remains are important because they can help scientists better understand the life of Ice Age animals and environmental conditions tens of thousands of years ago.

This photo shows the wolf cub as it was found. (Government of Yukon)

New insights into the life and death of the wolf cub

Now, a new study is published in the journal Current Biology states that the wolf cub is female and is called Zhur, meaning ‘wolf’ by the local Tr’ondek Hwech’in people. DNA analysis and X-ray data have revealed many aspects of the wolf cub’s life. For example, the scientists have found that Zhur lived and died between 56,000 and 57,000 years ago. The wolf cub is related to ancient Beringian and Russian gray wolves and died when she was about 7 weeks old.

Professor Julie Meachen, a paleontologist and professor of anatomy at Des Moines University in Iowa, also told reporters how the young wolf cub died, saying, “We think she was in her den and died instantly from the cave’s collapse. Our records showed that she wasn’t starving and was about 7 weeks old when she died, so we feel a little better knowing the poor girl didn’t suffer too long. ”

In their research, the scientists found whatever Zhur ate, and it was somewhat of a surprise. “When you think of Ice Age wolves, you normally think of eating bison, musk oxen or other large land animals,” Meachen said. “One thing that surprised us was that she was eating aquatic resources, especially salmon.”

An X-ray of the mummified wolf cub. (Government of Yukon)

Mummified animals in the permafrost

In areas outside the Arctic Circle, numerous finds have been made of mummified remains of extinct and extant animal species from the distant past. Exciting finds of mummified animals in the permafrost have been made in Siberia. In August 2018, an almost complete 40,000-year-old foal was discovered in the Yakutia region of Siberia, which is known for such discoveries. The remains can be preserved almost perfectly because of the extreme Arctic conditions that freeze the dead animals and slow or even stop the natural processes of decay.

The foal found in Batagai crater Yakutia was revealed last month.  (Image: The Siberian Times)

The foal found in the Batagai crater Yakutia in 2018. (Image: The Siberian Times )

A northwestern Canadian area, the Yukon is famous for the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s. Today, the area is dominated by large dense forests, but in the past it was part of the desolate tundra of Beringia. Here, extinct animals such as woolly camels and mammoths lived alongside the ancestors of extant mammals such as caribou, which now live in the Yukon.

Mummified caribou found in Yukon.  (© Government of Canada, Canadian Conservation Institute)

Mummified caribou found in Yukon. (© Government of Canada, Canadian Conservation Institute )

Paleontological gold

The discovery of the aforementioned caribou calf was made by some miners who continue to mine gold in the Yukon long after the end of the Klondike Gold Rush. The mummy was found in June 2016 in a gold mining region owned by a well-known Canadian reality TV star. According to USA Today, the caribou was found on “the site of an 80,000-year-old volcanic ash bed.”

In July 2016, the wolf cub was also discovered by another prospector working in the area. Both were very well preserved and, according to Smithsonian.com, the coat, skin, and muscles of both animals have been preserved almost perfectly. Because of their remarkable condition, these provide some of the oldest specimens of mummified mammalian soft tissue in the world.

The Wolf Cub and the Caribou Calf

The wolf cub is the best preserved of the two Ice Age creatures, and even its fur is in relatively good condition. The caribou’s condition isn’t very good, but its head, upper body, and front legs are complete, and according to Smithsonian.com, “it’s a unique example of mummified animal skin, muscle, and hair.”

A modern Canadian wolf (Canis lupus) at Chapultepec Zoo.  (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A modern Canadian wolf (Canis lupus) at Chapultepec Zoo. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The two specimens were taken out of the ground and scientists conducted a series of tests on the mummified remains. Carbon dating revealed that the caribou likely lived before the wolf cub. This makes them among the earliest specimens ever discovered in an Arctic region.

Beasts from the Ice

Nor is this the first significant find in Canadian permafrost. About 30 years ago, two miners found the incomplete mummified remains of a long-extinct horse species known as the Yukon horse. However, the discovery of the caribou and wolf cub is very important, as they are the oldest soft-tissue specimens excavated in Canada. Now the Canadians have specimens that rival anything found in Yakutia in Siberia.

In 1993, Sam Olynyk, Lee Olynyk and Ron Toewes found in Last Chance Creek, near Dawson City, the then most complete and best-preserved specimen of a mummified extinct animal in Canada, the Equus lambei or Yukon horse.  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In 1993, Sam Olynyk, Lee Olynyk and Ron Toewes found in Last Chance Creek, near Dawson City, the then most complete and best-preserved specimen of a mummified extinct animal in Canada, the Equus lambei or Yukon horse. ( CC BY-NC 2.0)

The importance of the finds

The discovery of the caribou and wolf cub is really significant. Tests on the mummified animals are expected to “help scientists learn more about the ancient mammal species that roamed Beringia,” said Tourism and Culture Minister Jeanie Dendys, according to a Yukon government press release. Premiere Sandy Silver further praised the find, saying:

“These world-class finds shed light on the fascinating history of the Yukon Ice Age and will help us understand how these long-gone creatures lived in the environment in which they lived.”

Both the wolf cub and the caribou are “very important and interconnected” to the First Nation residents Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. Chief Roberta Joseph stated:

The caribou has fed and clothed our people for thousands of years. The wolf maintains the balance in the natural world, keeping the caribou healthy. This was a great find, and it is a great opportunity to work with the Yukon government and our community partners. ”

The local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people have agreed to exhibit Zhur and the caribou cub at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center in Whitehorse. Zhur in particular is so ‘clean and preserved’ that EurekAlert! reports “she will remain intact for years to come, allowing her to travel to other Yukon locations as well.”

Top image: Mummified wolf cub found in Yukon. Source: © Government of Yukon

By Ed Whelan

Updated December 23, 2020.