The Klondike region of Canada is famous for its gold, but now other remarkable ancient treasures have been unearthed from the melting permafrost.
Two mummified ice age mammals – a wolf pup and a caribou calf – were discovered by gold miners in the area in 2016 and unveiled on Thursday at a ceremony in Dawson in Yukon territory.
It is extremely rare for fur, skin and muscle tissues to be preserved in the fossil record, but all three are present on these specimens, which have been radiocarbon-dated to more than 50,000 years old.
The wolf pup is preserved in its entirety, including exceptional details of the head, tail, paws, skin and hair. The caribou calf is partially preserved, with head, torso and two front limbs intact.
“To our knowledge, this is the only mummified ice age wolf ever found in the world,” said Grant Zazula, a local palaeontologist working with the Yukon government, who also emphasised the support of the local gold miners and mining community for palaeontology research.
Julie Meachen, a carnivore morphologist who works with ice age mammals at Des Moines University and will soon be doing research on the wolf pup, said: “When Grant sent me the pictures and asked me to participate I was really, really excited. I was sort of beside myself.
“We want to do an ancient DNA test to see who it’s related to and look at its microbiome to see if there are gut bacteria still there.”
Other researchers around the world reacted with similar excitement to the discovery of this ancient predator and its prey, which are well enough preserved to allow for future investigation of factors such as cause of death, diet, health, age and genetics.
Elsa Panciroli, a palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Ice age wolf bones are relatively common in the Yukon, but having an animal preserved with skin and fur is just exceptional – you just want to reach out and stroke it. It’s an evocative glimpse into the ice age world.”
Thomas Higham, an expert in archaeological dating at the University of Oxford, said: “The remains are highly evocative because they enable us to make almost face-to-face connection with animals that are tens of thousands of years old, and yet look much more recent.”
The wolf and caribou are believed to have inhabited a dry tundra landscape alongside other animals such as woolly mammoths.
The preservation of the skin and fur suggests they were living in a cold period, said Jan Zalasiewicz, a palaeobiologist at the University of Leicester. “A drier and more arid climate would help to preserve skin and fur, and this typically happens when the climate gets colder,” he said. “The trick here is finding a means of freeze-drying the carcass in these arid conditions and burying it … you need to find a way to dry it and put it in the freezer very quickly.”
Panciroli said: “Hopefully further research on this ‘pup-sicle’ might yield some ancient DNA” that could provide new information about the wolf populations that lived in the Yukon at this time. “For example, where did they come from, and how are they related to modern wolves?”