TORONTO – It was bad luck for the wolf dog – the den where she slept collapsed, burying her under the sediment.
But the circumstances of his death were good luck for the gold miner who discovered his perfectly preserved body, still covered in fur, near Dawson City, Yukon, more than 50,000 years later.
The miraculous discovery was described in a paper published in Current Biology on Monday.
The wolf cub was named Zhur by the local Tr’ondek Hwech’in people, a word that means “wolf” in the Han language of their community.
“Zhur is the most complete specimen of a mummified gray wolf from the known Pleistocene,” says the newspaper.
It was discovered in the summer of 2016 by a gold miner named Neil Loveless, preserved in permafrost by thawing in the Klondike gold fields.
The puppy was so well preserved that the swellings on his lips, called papillae, were still intact, along with the genitals, skin and claws. Although Zhur is a gray wolf, the fur that still covered her body was a rusty orange, and she was just under half a meter long, from the snout to the base of the tail.
The researchers used radiographs to estimate her age when she died. Assuming her bones ossified at about the same rate as a domestic dog, the researchers estimated that she died at about six to seven weeks of age.
It is believed that she died in the summer, July or early August, and that she had already been weaned from her mother.
To discover his geological age – the time his body remained buried after his death – the researchers extracted his DNA from ancient hair follicles still present in his body. Only with genomic sequencing, they were able to estimate that she lived between 75,000 and 56,000 years ago. Observation of the molecular oxygen isotopes in Zhur’s tooth enamel allowed them to narrow the time zone even further, to about 57,000 to 56,000 years ago.
It is not uncommon to find fossils of gray wolves in Alaska and the Yukon that date back to the Upper Pleistocene, although it is very unusual to find one so well preserved.
The researchers believe that Zhur and his mother ate mainly fish from the nearby Klondike River, as well as terrestrial sources of food. In her short life, she never went hungry, according to the newspaper.
Dying as she died – suddenly, due to a collapse – is the reason she was able to reach the 21st century in such well-preserved details, the researchers say, because she was not exposed to predators and other creatures that could have disturbed her body.