‘Kind of incredible’: Researchers reveal details of mummified ice age wolf pup found in Yukon


Scientists who have been studying a rare, perfectly preserved ancient wolf pup found in Yukon are sharing some of their findings for the first time.

The 57,000-year-old animal, discovered in the gold fields of Yukon in 2016, is the most complete mummified grey wolf of this era ever found. 

“She’s just so complete,” said Julie Meachen, a vertebrate paleontologist from Des Moines University in Iowa and lead author of the new study published this week in the journal Current Biology. “She’s so amazing. She’s so intact. I mean she even has her fur. Everything is there.”

The researchers were amazed to discover even the pup’s internal organs were intact. 

“We can just learn so much more from an animal with skin and fur and organs than we can with just bones,” Meachen said. “This is kind of incredible that we can get all this detail from her when she lived so long ago.” 

‘She’s just so complete. She’s so amazing. She’s so intact,’ said researcher Julie Meachen of Des Moines University in Iowa, seen here with Zhùr and veterinarian Jess Heath at a Whitehorse vet clinic in 2019. Heath is one of several co-authors of the new research paper. (Government of Yukon)

Through a variety of testing and analysis, the team of researchers was able to determine the pup — named Zhùr, which means “wolf” in the local Indigenous Hän language — was just seven weeks old when it died in its den. 

Genetic testing also revealed the wolf is not related to wolves found in North America today. 

“We learned she is very closely related to ice age wolves in Europe,” said Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula.

“And that’s really interesting because that tells us that there was a major population change that happened in North America with grey wolves at the end of the ice age.”

The scientists say they were most surprised to discover something about the diet of the little wolf. The animal’s last meal wasn’t bison or caribou or muskox as they had expected of the carnivore. It was fish. 

An artist’s rendering of Zhùr’s world, 57,000 years ago. Researchers were surprised to discover that the wolf pup’s diet seemed to include fish. (Julius Csotonyi)

“Based on the analysis of chemical components in her hair and other tissues, we were able to determine what her last meal was,” said Zazula. 

He says looking at things such as the ratio of carbon and nitrogen preserved in the tissue, it was clear the pup was eating aquatic species, most likely salmon. 

Culturally significant 

Zhùr is significant not only to the scientists but also to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation in Yukon. 

“We are connected to this wolf pup,” says Debbie Nagano, the director of heritage for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and a member of the First Nation’s wolf clan. 

Soon after the initial discovery, Zhùr was brought back to Dawson City for a special blessing ceremony with First Nations elders and was given a name. Nagano says before the animal went off for analysis, the First Nation worked with the scientists to ensure Zhùr wouldn’t be treated just as a specimen. 

Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula with Zhùr. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

“That side is quite important to us,” Nagano said. “There is a connection to it. We don’t want it to be just handled in the view of, ‘It’s just an artifact.’

“We really want it to be able to have the respect behind it also. Not in the way it’s respected physically; it also need to be respected spiritually.” 

Nagano says the discovery of Zhùr has also helped improve the relationships between the First Nation and scientists, and also with the government and the mining community. 

“This wolf pup is bringing us together in a good way, that we can all learn from it,” she said. “That part is a good way to be thankful for this wolf pup.” 

Rare find

For their part, the scientists are also grateful to the placer miner who first discovered Zhùr, in 2016.

Neil Loveless came across the animal thawing out of the permafrost. 

“I just saw this thing that didn’t quite look right,” he recalled. “I picked it up and to be honest, I thought maybe it was like an old, like a puppy or something … that had fallen down the mine shaft.” 

He put the remains in a gold pan and later in a freezer until a paleontologist arrived to have a look. 

More precious than gold? Placer miner Neil Loveless put the wolf pup in a gold pan when he found it. At first, he thought it was a puppy that had fallen down a mine shaft. (Government of Yukon)

The scientists say it’s that kind of collaboration with the mining community that makes their research possible. 

Ice-age remains are commonly dug out of the permafrost in Yukon — bones of mammoths, bison and horses — but a complete specimen like Zhùr is very rare, at least for now. 

Meachen hopes there may be more to find. 

“As global warming continues to thaw the permafrost, one silver lining is that other exceptionally preserved frozen mummies will likely be discovered, providing new windows into the past,” she said.