The “perfectly preserved” wolf cub, found within Canadian permafrost, is thought to have lived an incredible 57,000 years ago.
Of all the things a prospector expects to find, a wolf cub – frozen in time – certainly isn’t towards the top of the list. Such was the case for a Canadian gold miner back in 2016 while chasing gold in the Yukon. While the incredible discovery is now on-five years old, its impact is just now coming to light.
Thawing in the thick permafrost, the prehistoric wolf’s body was found to be in “perfect condition”. Upon realizing the wealth of knowledge to be gained, the specimen was passed on to Des Moines University. There, U.S. researcher Julie Meachen took the reigns, and couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
“I’ve never seen such a well-preserved mummy before,” says the Iowa researcher to NewScientist. “I was over the moon and so excited when I was asked to work on it.”
Meachen’s work is garnering vital clues into the life of this ancient ancestor of modern gray wolves, alongside domestic dogs. The mummification of the wolf cub, while brilliant, is entirely nature’s doing. Unlike the mummies we typically think of – product of meticulous preservation by human hands – this adolescent pup was naturally frozen after its death.
In becoming so, the Yukon’s freezing temperatures locked its organs and tissue in time, preserving them for scientists to study – 57,000 years in the future.
Prehistoric Cub, Named Zhùr, Sheds Light on Ancient Wolf Diet
Now, Meachen and her research team are pulling as much information from the ancient wolf cub as they can. With its fur, organs, and bones all still intact, they’ve been able to discern the pup’s sex: female. In life, she would’ve weighed just under 700 grams (around 1.5 lbs), and lived to be seven weeks old. While still tiny, this is the same age in which many modern gray wolf cubs become independent from their mother. In honor of Yukon’s First Nation’s people, the Hän, the little one has been given the name Zhùr.
Zhùr, fittingly, means “wolf” in the Hän’s native language. Researchers are using DNA analysis, alongside carbon dating, to further understand Zhùr’s brief life. In doing so, they’ve been able to pinpoint her existence within the Last Glacial Period, which took place those staggering 57,000 years ago.
Incredibly, Zhùr’s preservation is so pristine that researchers have been able to determine her exact diet. While Meachen notes that wolves of Zhùr’s same time period would’ve eaten mostly musk oxen and caribou, the contents of her digestive system show this tiny wolf pup was dining mostly on fish: salmon in particular. As such, Zhùr and her family would’ve been hunting rivers and streams – something her modern wolf descendants still do in the Yukon summers.
Zhùr’s Discovery is a “Double-Edged Sword”
As for her own species, Zhùr is of the same lineage as modern gray wolves – Canis lupus. “Wolves from Zhùr’s part of the world seem to have replaced most of the local wolf populations in Eurasia and the Americas,” adds Liisa Loog of the University of Cambridge to Current Biology‘s findings.
How this little wolf cub died at such a young age, however, remains a complete mystery to scientists.
“There’s no evidence she starved to death and there’s no physical damage to her body,” Meachen clarifies. Her team believes the pup may have become the sole victim of a collapsed home den. If her mother and siblings were able to escape, with Zhùr trapped within, it could explain her preservation deep within the frozen lands of the Yukon.
While Zhùr’s discovery within the thick permafrost is a blessing for researchers, it also heeds them great warning. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Meachen says. Due to her studies, Meachen is intimately familiar with the effects of climate change – and the intensifying thawing of Earth’s frozen regions. “You’re excited and horrified at the same time,” she adds of discoveries like Zhùr.