Compared to many ancient ice age mammals — with sabre teeth, curved tusks and larger proportions — the ancient grey wolf would be pretty familiar.
Even so, the world was a very different place for the species, as research into a grey wolf pup “mummy” found in permafrost outside Dawson is revealing.
Results from the study of the ancient gray wolf pup were published in Current Biology on Dec. 21, 2020. The well-preserved body revealed the age of the wolf pup, how long it lived, its diet and its genetic relation to other ancient wolves from the ice age period.
In partnership with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, the wolf pup was named “Zhùr”, which means “wolf” in the Hän language.
Zhùr was found in July 2016 at a site on Last Chance Creek just outside Dawson, Yukon by miner Neil Loveless. It took four years for the study to be completed and the findings published.
What Loveless found was a shriveled up dog-like creature. It was so intact he assumed he must have been a dog — perhaps a miner’s companion who had fallen and been buried in during the gold rush.
In most people’s minds something that old is skeletal or fossil only. But locked in the permafrost, ancient species can become rare permafrost “mummies” that preserve much more than bone.
Zhùr still had her ears, organs, skin and fur — her small mouth curled in a puppy snarl.
Research was led by Julie Meachen from Des Moines University, who has been studying ice age fossils since 2000. Meachen was familiar with other permafrost mummies — including a Siberian wolf head, a cave lion cub and a steppe bison, but this was the first one she worked on.
|An artist’s rendering of Zhùr eating a fish over 50,000 years ago. (Submitted)|
“We were all very excited about Zhùr. My Facebook friends asked me how I didn’t hug her or snuggle her when I saw her, and I said I really wanted to but I knew that she was fragile and I didn’t want to hurt her or damage her. But she is very cute,” she admitted.
“We had the opportunity to learn much more about an individual that lives during the Pleistocene than any other individual fossil I have found yet in my career. This is really cool,” she said.
Meachen worked with other specialists who had the technology to examine the different components of a rare ancient mummy. Together, they were able to examine samples to reveal what type of food she ate, how she died and how old she was.
Due to the nature of the permafrost, Zhùr is the best preserved and most complete mummy of an ancient wolf found to date.
The research revealed Zhùr was a female, around six to seven weeks old when her den collapsed on top of her. She roamed the northern Yukon 57,000 years ago during a warmer period in ice age history.
During her short life, she likely ate freshwater aquatic resources such as salmon that would have been found in the nearby Klondike River.
While modern-day wolves are apex predators in the Yukon today, that wasn’t always the case. During Zhùr’s life the food chain was ruled by larger creatures such as the American lion and short-faced bear.
Unlike many of those species, whose direct relatives disappeared and are foreign to us locally, Zhùr is related to ancient Beringian and Russian grey wolves and her genes are a foundation for all living grey wolves.
“We’re so used to studying bones,” said Yukon palaeontologist Grant Zazula. “I hope we find more mummies. 2020 has been a rough year, but I will say this has been one of the best parts for me. Every time we get a new email with [a new finding], it’s been ‘Wow,’” he said.
|Researchers comb Last Chance Creek mine for more fossils. (Government of Yukon/Submitted)|
“As a scientist, we often refer to these animals or things we find in the ground as specimens, but this isn’t just a specimen – it’s something that is real and has a value to a lot of different people. One of the amazing things about this is it’s an opportunity to learn from a lot of different perspectives,” Zazula said.
Since her discovery, Zhùr has done some national travel outside her homeland. She went to a facility in Ottawa for cleaning and even had X-rays at Alpine Veterinary Medical Centre in Whitehorse before going on display at the Beringia Centre. She also attended a special ceremony in Dawson where she received her name.
Scientists worked with members of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in to highlight the cultural importance of wolves and other ice age mammals within their community in the display at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre.
“We were pretty excited as a First Nation. With any chance finds we know that’s a connection to our culture and our tradition,” said Debbie Nagano, the director of heritage for First Nation.
Nagano said there have been no origin stories shared about creatures like Zhùr, but the wolf is one of the two clans of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people.
“Zhùr is a knowledge keeper, just like an elder,” explained Nagano. “Zhùr’s reminding us to work together, to uphold our commitments to the land to each other. She’s telling us that if we follow our laws and go through life in a good way we will be here as long as Zhùr herself.”
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org