Ancient wolf pup found in Yukon shows European ancestry

Zhùr, a pup frozen for 57,000 years, answers questions about ancient wolves’ diet and lifestyle, scientists say

A perfectly preserved wolf pup, locked in northern Canada’s permafrost for more than 57,000 years, is helping researchers paint a better picture of ancient canine species and their relation to modern descendants. Photo courtesy Current Biology
Photo courtesy Current Biology

A perfectly preserved wolf pup, locked in northern Canada’s permafrost for more than 57,000 years, is helping scientists paint a better picture of the ancient canine species and their relation to modern descendants.

The pup—named ‘Zhùr’ by the local Tr’ondek Hwech’in people—was discovered by a gold miner near Dawson City, Yukon, in 2016. The animal is among the most complete mummified grey wolves of its era ever discovered, researchers say.

Findings published in Current Biology show that Zhùr, a seven-week-old female, descends from ancient wolves from Russia, Siberia, and Alaska. These canines are the ancestors of modern wolves, according to Science Daily.

“She’s the most complete wolf mummy ever found,” says the report’s co-author, Julie Meachen, PhD, an associate professor of anatomy at Des Moines University. “She’s basically 100 per cent intact—all that’s missing are her eyes. The fact she’s so complete allowed us to do so many lines of inquiry on her to basically reconstruct her life.”

Indeed, the pup’s excellent condition has allowed researchers to determine information about her lifestyle. Her diet, for instance, suggests she lived in close proximity to water.

“Normally when you think of wolves in the ice age, you think of them eating bison, musk oxen, or other large animals on land,” Dr. Meachen says. “One thing that surprised us was she was eating aquatic resources, particularly salmon.”

However, while Zhùr has answered some questions, many factors remain unknown. For instance, researchers say, the pup was found alone in a den with no sign of her mother or siblings.

The team believes Zhùr died instantly when her den suddenly collapsed. This may explain why her present-day condition is so good; for specimens to be found in such a well-preserved condition, a number of factors have to come into play.

“It’s rare to find these mummies in the Yukon,” Meachen says. “The animal has to die in a permafrost location, where the ground is frozen all the time, and they have to get buried very quickly, like any other fossilization process.

“If [the body] lies out on the frozen tundra too long, it’ll decompose or get eaten.”

Researchers believe more mummies may come to light due to melting snow.

“One small upside of climate change is that we’re going to find more of these mummies as permafrost melts,” Meachen says. “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.”

Now cleaned and preserved, Zhùr is on display at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse.

For more information, including a video about the findings, click here.

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