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Mummified remains, more than 50,000 years old, unveiled in Yukon


A snapshot of life for an ancient predator and its prey is being put on display as the mummified ice-age remains of a caribou calf and a wolf pup are unveiled in Yukon.

Paleontologist Grant Zazula said Thursday the specimens unearthed southeast of Dawson City, Yukon, are among the oldest mummified mammal soft tissue in the world.

"Once in a while we find remains of ice-age voles or squirrels, but in terms of something significant and crazy like this, this is very, very rare," Zazula said.

Both specimens have been radiocarbon dated to a time more than 50,000 years ago, when the northern landscape was an extremely cold, grassy tundra.

While the area around Dawson City is a boreal forest today, the pup and calf were likely navigating a world without trees, where cold, dry winds blew dust around, as evidenced by sediment found with the animals, Zazula said.

Many other animals that roamed the land when they were alive are now extinct, including western camels and woolly mammoths.

Both specimens were discovered by miners.

The mummified caribou calf was found on Tony Beets' placer gold mine on Paradise Hill on June 3, 2016. It includes nearly the entire front half of the caribou carcass, including torso, head and two front limbs and with skin, muscle and hair intact.

The caribou was at a site that contains a volcanic ash bed that dates to approximately 80,000 years ago.

"We think this is actually probably the oldest mummified mammal tissue in the world for soft-tissue skin, hair and muscle," Zazula said.

The wolf was found July 13, 2016, on the Favron Enterprises Ltd., claim and is exceptionally well preserved.

"It's beautiful, the fur, it's got the cute little paws and tail and the curled upper lip showing its teeth. It's spectacular," he said.

Zazula said local paleontologists were thrilled when they saw the remains.

"We sometimes get jealous because in Siberia, we have colleagues who work in Russia, and it seems like they find a new woolly mammoth carcass every summer. But we never seem to find those in the Yukon or Alaska," he said.

Yukon paleontologists identified the mummified remains of a horse in the area about 30 years ago, but Zazula said he's unaware of any significant soft-tissue mammal specimens since then.

Researchers will study the remains to see what they can learn about caribou and wolf ancestors through genetic testing. They can also learn about the animals' diets, which hold clues to what the environment was like at that time, by studying the chemical composition of their bones and other strategies.

Beyond the science, Zazula said he hopes the specimens connect viewers with another time.

"When you look at fossil bones, that's one thing. But when you actually see a whole animal from an ancient time, it brings that ancient time to life," he said.

"It just makes you ponder about the amazing changes that have happened in the environment, the climate and the animal community since that time."

The mummified animals will be on display in Dawson City for the rest of the month, then will join an exhibit at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse.

– The Canadian Press