While mining around the hills of Canada's deep north in the summer of 2016, workers unearthed two priceless treasures: the unbelievably well-preserved remains of an Ice Age wolf pup and a caribou calf.
The fluffy duo were found at a mine near Dawson City in Yukon in June and July 2016, respectively, and have been closely studied by a local team of paleontologists for the past two years. A recent radiocarbon analysis of the Ice Age specimens dates them to over 50,000 years old. The caribou (or reindeer) was discovered at a site that contains a volcanic ash bed that dates to approximately 80,000 years ago, hinting it could potentially be even older.
"We think this is actually probably the oldest mummified mammal tissue in the world for soft-tissue skin, hair and muscle," Grant Zazula, a Yukon government paleontologist, told The Canadian Press news agency.
The wolf pup is complete, and looks like it could be sleeping. "It's beautiful, the fur, it's got the cute little paws and tail and the curled upper lip showing its teeth. It's spectacular," he said.
Zazula told The Guardian that it is the only mummified Ice Age wolf ever found in the world, to their knowledge.
They are both exceptionally well-preserved (despite the caribou's lacking back end) thanks to the conditions of Yukon in the Ice Age. Although now caked in a thick layer of trees, it was once a surprisingly arid tundra environment with very little tree cover. These conditions allowed the bodies to become quickly freeze-dried and buried within permafrost, which kept them preserved like a prehistoric refrigerator for at least 50,000 years.
The bodies will shortly be going on display in Dawson for a month before joining an exhibit at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse.
However, there is still much to be learned about these two. Researchers are hoping to further analyze the chemical composition of the caribou and wolf bones to get insights into their environment and diet. They also hope to carry out further DNA testing to understand how these individuals died.
Other than a couple of mummified squirrels, there hasn't been a significant preserved animal find in Yukon since the remains of a horse were discovered 30 years ago, so the researchers are pretty pleased.
“We sometimes get jealous because in Siberia, we have colleagues who work in Russia, and it seems like they find a new woolly mammoth carcass every summer," Zazula said. "We never seem to find those in the Yukon or Alaska."
It's true Siberia is particularly rich in Ice Age creature discoveries. Researchers in the Yakutia region of northern Russian recently discovered the incredibly well-preserved remains of a 40,000-year-old foal, just weeks after unearthing the frozen remains of a potentially new distinct species of, yes, pygmy mammoth.