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article imagePerfectly preserved wolf pup dug out of thawing permafrost

By Karen Graham     Dec 22, 2020 in Science
A female wolf pup mummy, perfectly preserved as it remained locked in permafrost for 57,000 years, is finally giving up some of its secrets, including how the grey wolf died and ended up alone in the ice so long ago.
In 2016, Neil Loveless, a placer miner, came across the animal thawing out of the permafrost in the Klondike goldfields, near Dawson City, Yukon, Canada, according to CBC Canada.
"I just saw this thing that didn't quite look right," he recalled. "I picked it up and to be honest, I thought maybe it was like an old, like a puppy or something ... that had fallen down the mine shaft." Putting the remains in his gold pan, the animal was put in a freezer until a paleontologist arrived to have a look.
The creature Loveless had come across turned out to be the mummified carcass of a Pleistocene gray wolf (Canis lupus) pup. And what was so amazing was that the little wolf was completely intact, apparently having died when the den she was in collapsed.
(C) Photograph in dorsal view showing port-mortem damage to skin during discovery and photograph in ...
(C) Photograph in dorsal view showing port-mortem damage to skin during discovery and photograph in ventral view (below) showing furless belly and female external genitalia, scale bar is 10 cm. (D) Bulk carbon and nitrogen isotopes of wolf pup Zhùr relative to other isotope data derived from wolves (black circles).
Julie Meachen et al.
"She is the most complete wolf specimen ever found from the ice age," said lead author Julie Meachen, an associate professor of Anatomy at Des Moines University in Iowa. "All her soft tissue, her hair, her skin, even her little nose is still there. She's just complete. And that is really rare."
"We can just learn so much more from an animal with skin and fur and organs than we can with just bones," Meachen said. "This is kind of incredible that we can get all this detail from her when she lived so long ago."
Various types of analysis were done, according to Live Science, including radiocarbon dating, DNA sampling, and measurements of levels of different versions, or isotopes, of oxygen. X-rays of the teeth and bones showed the pup was about seven weeks old when she died.
"Based on the analysis of chemical components in her hair and other tissues, we were able to determine what her last meal was," said Zazula. And that last meal was not bison or musk ox - but fish, most likely salmon.
Original distribution of gray wolf sub-species
Original distribution of gray wolf sub-species
The scientific significance of the find
After reconstructing the pup's mitochondrial genome, it was found that the wolf is not related to wolves found in North America today. Instead, the scientists found similarities in the pup''s genetic makeup with both Beringian wolves, an extinct group that lived in ancient Yukon and Alaska, and Russian grey wolves.
"We learned she is very closely related to ice age wolves in Europe," said Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula. "And that's really interesting because that tells us that there was a major population change that happened in North America with grey wolves at the end of the ice age."
The pup's relationship to both individuals from North America and Eurasia is proof of ancient continental mixing across the Bering Land Bridge that once connected Alaska and Russia, the researchers wrote in their report that was published in the journal Current Biology on December 21, 2020.
The Cultural Significance of the find
The wolf pup not only has scientific significance but she is also culturally significant to the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation in Yukon. "We are connected to this wolf pup," says Debbie Nagano, the director of heritage for the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in and a member of the First Nation's wolf clan.
Shortly after its initial discovery, the mummified carcass of the wolf pup was brought back to Dawson City for a special blessing ceremony with First Nations elders and was given a name. The little female wolf pup was named Zhùr, which means "wolf" in the local Indigenous Hän language.
The naming ceremony is also a way of showing respect, not only for the wolf but for the First Nations people. "There is a connection to it. We don't want it to be just handled in the view of, 'It's just an artifact," said Nagano.
"We really want it to be able to have the respect behind it also. Not in the way, it's respected physically; it also needs to be respected spiritually."
Nagano says the discovery of Zhùr has also helped improve the relationships between the First Nation and scientists, and also with the government and the mining community. "This wolf pup is bringing us together in a good way, that we can all learn from it," she said. "That part is a good way to be thankful for this wolf pup."
More about wolf pup, perfextly preserved, Grey wolf, Canada, Thawing permafrost
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