The prehistoric wolf mummy was discovered by a gold miner in Canada water blasting a wall of frozen mud in the province of Yukon. As the mud was swept away, the worker found what appeared to be an ancient fossil. The object turned out to be a remarkably well-preserved wolf pup which had died around 57,000 years ago.
The ancient canine was discovered with some of its facial features, such as its snout, still intact, offering scientists a wealth of information about the female pup.
Julie Meachen, an associate professor of anatomy at Des Moines University, said: “She’s the most complete wolf mummy that’s ever been found. She’s basically 100 percent intact – all that’s missing are her eyes.
“And the fact that she’s so complete allowed us to do so many lines of inquiry on her to basically reconstruct her life.”
The ancient pup has been named Zhùr by the local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people, and scientists believe several factors had to come together to preserve the pup so perfectly.
According to the research published in the journal Current Biology, the animal would have had to have died in an instant, which saw it buried beneath the permafrost – potentially when its den collapsed.
Prof Meachen said: “It’s rare to find these mummies in the Yukon.
“The animal has to die in a permafrost location, where the ground is frozen all the time, and they have to get buried very quickly, like any other fossilisation process.
“If it lays out on the frozen tundra too long it’ll decompose or get eaten.
“We think she was in her den and died instantaneously by den collapse.
“Our data showed that she didn’t starve and was about 7 weeks old when she died, so we feel a bit better knowing the poor little girl didn’t suffer for too long.”
How Zhùr died is not the only insight that scientists were able to decipher.
Analysis of her diet shows she largely survived on water-dwelling species.
Prof Meachen said: “Normally when you think of wolves in the Ice Age, you think of them eating bison or musk oxen or other large animals on land.
“One thing that surprised us was that she was eating aquatic resources, particularly salmon.”
What the team were unable to determine is why Zhùr was the only pup found in the den.
Wolves are usually born in a litter of four to six pups, so to find a single pup in the den is odd, the team said.
Prof Meachen added: “We’ve been asked why she was the only wolf found in the den, and what happened to her mom or siblings.
“It could be that she was an only pup. Or the other wolves weren’t in the den during the collapse. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.”