The mummified body of a young wolf that lived in northwestern Canada 57,000 years ago is the subject of in-depth study for an Iowa scholar.
Julie Meachen, an anatomy professor at Des Moines University, was chosen to journey to the Yukon to learn all she could about the perfectly preserved wolf pup. “My expertise is in Ice Age carnivores and I am a vertebrate paleontologist, so somebody who studies extinct animals,” Meachen says. “I’m a morphologist so I study body form, shape and function and so I was picked because I know a lot about ancient dogs and cats.”
A miner searching for gold in the frozen mud using blasts from a water cannon discovered the pup in the permafrost. It’s in remarkable condition, the most complete wolf mummy that’s ever been found.
“She actually appears to have sort of dark brown to reddish fur,” Meachen says. “I think that some of the color might’ve been from a little bit of oxidization but I think it’s fairly true to her natural fur color.”
As part of the careful research, it was determined the wolf pup, which is only about 18-inches long, was alive during the Ice Age toward the end of the Pleistocene Epoch.
“We got that from looking at the isotopes in her teeth and hair and fur,” Meachen says. “She lived in this interglacial period which means the weather was warmer and there was a lot more water, free-flowing water, so there may have been a lot more vegetation than you would think of in the tundra.”
Conditions have to be just right for a body to mummify in permafrost and it’s believed this pup was killed instantly by the collapse of her family’s den. She was around seven weeks old. Meachen says finding a mummy is exceptionally infrequent on our continent.
“They’re very common in Siberia, as you may have heard, there’s been a lot of them found in Siberia in the last five or six years,” she says, “but in North America, the conditions weren’t quite as good for preserving things in a mummified form, so these are really rare in North America.”
It’s the first time Meachen has studied a mummy, an experience she says was “super awesome.” The discovery of mummies may become less rare in our hemisphere, she predicts, because global warming is having a critical impact on our environment.
“The climate is really warming in the Arctic which is basically where these mummies are going to be found, so we’re going to see a lot more of them in the near future,” Meachen says, “but it’s a double-edged sword because even though they’re very exciting for scientists and we can learn a lot about Ice Age animals, we’re reminded that global warming is continually a problem.”
The pup was named Zhùr by the native Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people in the Yukon. Zhùr means “wolf.” Study of the pup’s genome confirms she is descended from ancient wolves from Russia, Siberia and Alaska, the ancestors of modern wolves, though Meachen says she isn’t clearly related to anything alive today.
The findings were published in the December 21st edition of the journal “Current Biology.”