For the very first time, researchers have discovered an ancient bird that's been frozen in the permafrost of Siberia since the last Ice Age.
The bird was discovered by a team of local fossil ivory hunters in the village of Belaya Gora in Yakutia, northern Russia. Realizing they had stumbled across something significant, they passed the specimen onto scientists at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Sweden.
Reported in the journal Communications Biology, radiocarbon dating revealed that the bird was alive approximately 44,000 to 49,000 years ago. Acting like a refrigerator, the conditions have preserved the bird incredibly well after all these millennia, complete with intact feathers, nails, skin, and soft tissue. Permafrost creates the ideal conditions to preserve organic matter, providing sub-zero temperatures that are low enough to stave off most bacterial and fungal growth that would otherwise decompose the body, but not cold enough to damage the tissues.
The bird's remarkable condition also means it’s a treasure trove for researchers looking to study the genetics of ancient animals. They also managed to extract DNA from the carcass, revealing that the bird was a species of passerine known as a horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). The genetic data showed that the bird was the ancestor of two different subspecies of horned lark, one that today lives in northern Russia and another that inhabits the Mongolian steppe.
“The next step is to sequence the complete genome of this bird. This would allow us to obtain direct estimates of mutation rates but also to further examine the timing and evolution of larks in Eurasia,” Nicolas Dussex, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Palaeogenetics, told IFLScience.
The researchers believe this specimen might be the first-ever discovered frozen bird from the Ice Age. While there were plenty of birds around at the time, they often prove difficult to find in permafrost conditions for a number of reasons.
“Firstly, passerines being quite small and fragile... it is more difficult to find intact bird remains under meters of soil," explained Dussex. "Secondly, if one were to find such bird remains on land or partly dug up, they may think the bird died recently and thus what is actually an ancient bird, may never be 'discovered.'"
Ice Age birds are a first, but researchers have found plenty of other ancient creatures trapped in permafrost. Just last year, the Centre for Palaeogenetics also studied a puppy that was discovered in the permafrost near the Indigirka River in Siberia. Named Dogor, this ancient dog was also well-preserved and in stunning condition, despite being some 18,000 years old. Good boy!