A gold miner uncovered a treasure they weren’t expecting in Yukon, Canada, as an ancient, mummified wolf puppy emerged from a frozen wall of mud which was being blasted with water. The mummified animal had been locked in the permafrost for 57,000 years, and yet it remains in remarkably good condition. The ancient female puppy has been named Zhùr by the local Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in people and is already proving herself to be a heckin’ good girl in sharing insights about her age, lifestyle, and her relationship to modern wolves. The remarkable finding was published in the journal Current Biology.
It takes a special combination of conditions for an animal to reemerge 57,000 years after their death with soft tissues intact. The first question to answer about Zhùr was how she had come to be locked in the permafrost, and what led to the creation of her icy tomb.
“She's the most complete wolf mummy that's ever been found,” said first author Julie Meachen, an associate professor of anatomy at Des Moines University, in a statement. “She's basically 100% intact, all that's missing are her eyes. And the fact that she's so complete allowed us to do so many lines of inquiry on her to basically reconstruct her life."
To find such a specimen is rare in the Yukon because to be preserved as well as Zhùr an animal would’ve needed to be buried very quickly or else be eaten or left to rot on the frozen tundra. The researchers who discovered her hypothesize that she was buried in a collapsed den, which was likely the cause of death, but why she was the only puppy in there with no siblings or mother is impossible to know.
Zhùr evidently didn’t go hungry before she died, as analyses revealed she had a primarily aquatic diet including lots of salmon. "Our data showed that she didn't starve and was about 7 weeks old when she died,” said Meachen, “so we feel a bit better knowing the poor little girl didn't suffer for too long."
The team were also able to carry out genetic analyses and found that Zhùr's genome was indeed descended from the same ancient wolves; that hailed from Russia, Siberia, and Alaska, that extant wolves descended from. The researchers believe Zhùr will not be the last ancient pup to emerge from the permafrost as a changing climate will reveal environments that have gone uncovered for tens-of-thousands of years.
"One small upside of climate change is that we're going to find more of these mummies as permafrost melts," said Meachen. "That's a good way for science to reconstruct that time better, but it also shows us how much our planet is actually warming. We really need to be careful."
Earlier this year another frozen puppy emerged in Siberia, having been frozen for 12,400 years.