Some 400 years ago, a wandering goat-antelope went out for a walk in the Alps and never returned home. The unfortunate beast became buried in snow and lost beneath a glacier for centuries until the frozen body was recently revealed by the mountain's receding glaciers. After a chance discovery, scientists are now using this unlikely hero to learn how to deal with preserved frozen mummies without damaging their ancient DNA.
The body of the 400-year-old chamois, a species of goat-antelope native to mountains in Europe, was found after a six-hour hike up the snowy mountains of Val Aurina in South Tyrol, Italy. "Only half of the animal's body was exposed from the snow. The skin looked like leather, completely hairless; I had never seen anything like it. I immediately took a photo and sent it to the park ranger, together we then notified the Department of Cultural Heritage,” Hermann Oberlechner, who initially discovered the body, said in a statement.
With the help of the Alpine Army Corps mountain rescue team, the chamois was helicoptered down the mountain and eventually ended up at the Eurac Research Conservation Laboratory in a refrigerated cell at -5°C (23°F). The team now hopes to use the iced cadaver has a model to understand how ancient DNA can be better preserved in other ancient iced mummies.
"Our goal is to use scientific data to develop a globally valid conservation protocol for ice mummies. This is the first time an animal mummy has been used in this way," said Albert Zink, Director of the Institute for Mummy Studies at Eurac Research.
Perhaps the most well-known ice mummy is Ötzi the Iceman, a man who died over 5,000 years in the frosty Alpine mountains on the border between Austria and Italy. Because this unlucky guy became buried in glacial ice, his body is remarkably well preserved, allowing scientists to deduce an incredible amount about his life. We know he was a tattooed hunter with a bad heart and gut parasites. It’s also clear he was murdered by another human, as shown by the arrowhead found in his left shoulder.
Ötzi's excellent condition is a bit of an exception, even in comparison to other glacier mummies. However, with the help of this frozen chamois, ice mummies that are yet to be discovered might fare better once they make their way into the hands of researchers.
"Thanks to our previous studies we know the optimal physical and chemical parameters for preservation from a microbiological point of view. In the laboratory, we will bring the chamois to those conditions and focus on their effects on DNA. With repeated in-depth analysis we will verify what alterations the DNA undergoes when external conditions change," explained Marco Samadelli, a conservation expert at Eurac Research.