A mysterious prehistoric pup is causing scientists to scratch their heads after being recovered from the depths of Siberia’s permafrost.
The puppy, believed to be just two months old when it died, was named “Dogor” which means "Friend" in the Yakut language spoken in the area. It was discovered in the vicinity of the Indigirka River in Siberia, north-east of Yakutsk, and has recently been studied at the Swedish Centre for Palaeogenetics (CPG).
Like a natural refrigerator, the permafrost has kept the ancient canine in remarkably good condition – complete with fur, whiskers, and teeth – but the researchers are still unsure what species this curious specimen once belonged to.
While the work has managed to discover the specimen is male and approximately 18,000 years old, preliminary genome sequencing was unable to tell whether it is a wolf, a dog, or perhaps a proto-dog common ancestor of the two.
“The Centre has Europe’s largest DNA bank of all canines from around the globe, yet in this case they couldn’t identify it from the first try,” Love Dalén, professor of evolutionary genetics at the CPG, told The Siberian Times.
“This is intriguing, what if it’s a dog? We can’t wait to get results from further tests,” added Sergey Fedorov from the Institute of Applied Ecology of the North at the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk.
Humans started to settle in this northern part of Russia around 32,500 years ago. Furthermore, previous research has suggested that humans domesticated dogs from wolves some 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. This means that Dogor could, in theory, fit anywhere within this range as a loyal household dog, a ravenous wild wolf, or anything in between.
Permafrost creates the perfect conditions to preserve organic matter. The sub-zero temperatures are just low enough to stave off most bacterial and fungal growth that would otherwise decompose the body, but not cold enough to damage the tissues. Occasionally, if conditions are just right, scientists are even able to obtain fragments of viable DNA that can be used to sequence the genome of the organism in question.
Another stunning example of preservation by permafrost is the 40,000-year-old head of an ice age wolf, still covered in skin and fur, that was discovered last year in the Abyisky district of northern Yakutia.
Researchers have recovered dozens of wooly mammoth bodies from the permafrost of Siberia and beyond in the past few decades. One of the most famous and studied specimens is a 28,000-year-old mammoth named "Yuka" that was found near the mouth of the Kondratievo River in Siberia over the summer of 2010. Although there is still a long way to go, scientists have even been toying with the idea of harnessing the DNA from permafrost-preserved mammoths and using it to resurrect the species from extinction.