Miners Strike Ice Age Gold Finding Two Beasts of Beringia in Yukon
The Yukon state government in the far north of Canada has announced that some miners have made significant discoveries in the permafrost. While searching for gold, the miners found a mummified wolf cub and a caribou calf from the last ice age. The discovery of the two animals which are almost perfectly preserved is rare and exciting for both scientists and the community. The mummified remains are important as they can allow scientists to better understand the lives of animals in the ice ige and conditions in the environment tens of thousands of years ago.
Mummified Animals in the Permafrost
In territories beyond the Arctic circle, there have been numerous mummified remains of extinct and extant animal species from the ancient past. In Siberia, there have been exhilarating finds of mummified animals in the permafrost. In August 2018 an almost complete 40,000-year-old foal was discovered in the Yakutia region of Siberia, which is renowned for such discoveries. The remains can be near perfectly preserved because of the extreme Arctic conditions that freezes the dead animals slowing or even halting the natural processes of decay.
The foal that was found in Batagai crater Yakutia revealed last month. (Image: The Siberian Times )
The latest announcement was made in the Yukon, the north-western Canadian territory, famed for the Klondike Gold Rush in the late nineteenth century. Today, the area is dominated by large, dense forests but in the past it was part of the desolate tundra of Beringia. Here extinct animals such as woolly camels and mammoths lived alongside the ancestors of existing mammals such as caribou, who now live in the Yukon.
Mummified caribou found in Yukon. (© Government of Canada, Canadian Conservation Institute )
The discovery of the caribou was made by some miners who continue to mine gold in the Yukon long after the end of the Klondike Gold Rush. The mummy was found in a gold mining region that is owned by a well-known Canadian reality TV-star in June 2016. The caribou was found at ‘the site of an 80,000-year-old volcanic ash bed,’ reports USA Today .
In July 2016, the wolf-pup was discovered by another gold miner working in the area. Both were very well-preserved and according to the Smithsonian.com, ‘both animals’ fur, skin, and muscle are almost perfectly preserved.’ Due to their remarkable condition these offer some of the oldest specimens of mummified mammal soft tissue in the world.
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The Wolf-cub and the Caribou
The wolf cub is the better preserved of the two ice age creatures and even its fur is in relatively good condition. It is believed, according to the BBC, that the wolf pup died when it was only eight weeks old. The condition of the caribou is not as good, but its head, upper torso, and front legs are complete and according to the Smithsonian. com ‘it provides a singular example of mummified animal skin, muscle, and hair.’
A modern Canadian wolf (Canis lupus) at Chapultepec Zoo. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The two specimens were removed from the ground and scientists carried a range of tests on the mummified remains. Carbon dating revealed that the two specimens lived over 50,000 years ago and the caribou probably lived earlier than the wolf pup. These make them among the earliest specimens that have ever been uncovered in an Arctic region. The scientists now intend to carry out genetic testing to learn more about the animals of the ice age.
Beasts from the Ice
This is not the first significant find in the Canadian permafrost. Some thirty years ago two miners found the incomplete mummified remains of a long extinct horse species, that is known as the Yukon horse . However, the discovery of the caribou and the wolf pup are very significant as they are the oldest specimens with soft tissue that have been unearthed in Canada. Now the Canadians have specimens that can rival anything found in Yakutia in Siberia.
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In 1993, Sam Olynyk, Lee Olynyk and Ron Toewes found at Last Chance Creek, near Dawson City the then most complete and best-preserved specimen of a mummified extinct animal in Canada, the Equus lambei or Yukon horse. ( CC BY-NC 2.0)
The importance of the finds
The find of the caribou and the wolf cub is really significant. Tests on the mummified animals are continuing and they are expected to ‘help scientists learn more about the ancient mammal species that roamed Beringia ,’ stated Minister of Tourism and Culture, Jeanie Dendys according to a Yukon Government press release . Premiere Sandy Silver further praised the find saying:
“These world class finds shed light on Yukon’s fascinating ice age history and will help us understand how these long-gone creatures lived in the environment they inhabited.”
Both wolf and caribou are ‘very important and inter-connected’ for the First Nation residents Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in . Chief Roberta Joseph stated:
“The caribou has fed and clothed our people for thousands of years. The wolf maintains balance within the natural world, keeping the caribou healthy. These were an amazing find, and it’s a great opportunity to work collaboratively with the Government of Yukon and our community partners.”
The mummified animals will stay on display in Dawson for the remainder of the month, after which they will be incorporated into an exhibit at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse.
Top image: Mummified wolf-cub found in Yukon Source: © Government of Yukon
By Ed Whelan