As gold miners worked at two separate mines in the Yukon in northwest Canada in summer 2016, the two sets of workers both came across extraordinary finds from the ice age. Around 50,000 years ago, a rich variety of wildlife made this remote region their home. And now the gold miners’ incredible discoveries would reveal new information about some of these prehistoric animals.
Today the Yukon, which was established in 1898, is one of the three Canadian territories to the north of the country; the other two are Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Back in the ice age, however, most of Canada was covered by ice that was miles deep, meaning wildlife was scarce or nonexistent. The country was effectively a frozen desert.
However, things were different in the land that we now call the Yukon. Somehow, the region escaped the extreme glaciation that covered the rest of Canada in unimaginably thick ice. And this meant that it provided a habitat where a wide variety of wild animals could thrive.
The two gold mines where the finds were made are not far from the Yukon’s Dawson City in the Klondike region of the territory. Go hiking in the countryside in the area, and you’ll find the boreal woodlands typical of regions with lengthy winters and brief summers.
However, 50,000 years ago the landscape was quite different. Dr. Grant Zazula, a Yukon paleontologist, explained to CTV News that the territory in the Klondike was most likely treeless and characterized by frigid winds blowing across the land. It would have been a grassy, tundra environment.
Wildlife in the Yukon would have included animals such as steppe bison, scimitar cats, camels and American mastodons. It would also have most definitely included caribou and wolves. And the extraordinary discoveries in those two gold mines were the astonishingly well-preserved mummified carcasses of an ice-age caribou and wolf.
The wolf that was discovered was actually a cub. It was found by gold miners at a mine worked by Favron Enterprises, run by the Favron family. The great-grandfathers of the present-day mine owners Guy and Lisa Favron were among the original prospectors who had headed north in 1898. The men had been lured by the heady promises of the Klondike Gold Rush of the time.
Speaking about the mummified wolf found by the miners in July 2016, a clearly enthused Zazula waxed lyrical. “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.
“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 continued. “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 added.
This wolf cub would have been a Yukon or gray wolf. These predators and scavengers evolved somewhat differently to their cousins elsewhere in North America. In particular, Yukon wolves developed shorter and wider snouts than other wolves, meaning the power of their bites was increased. This probably helped them to hunt or scavenge large animals in their territory – perhaps even mastodons.
And Zazula was in no doubt about the significance of this find. “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 told CTV News. “It just makes you ponder about the amazing changes that have happened in the environment, the climate and the animal community since that time,” he added.
The other mummified animal discovered in 2016 – in June – was found at another mine near Dawson City at Paradise Hill. This specimen is the partial body of a caribou – which, like the wolf cub, has been carbon dated to over 50,000 years ago.
And the Paradise Hill mine is owned and run by Tony Beets, who has a prominent public profile as one of the stars of the Discovery TV reality show Gold Rush. Like the Favron mine, Paradise Hill is a placer mine, which means that gold is extracted from gravel beds.
And the area around Dawson City is fertile ground for this type of mining, since the land was not covered in thick ice during the ice age. So the very factor that makes the Klondike a good place to mine for gold today is the same one that made the Yukon a suitable habitat for all kinds of wildlife 50,000 years ago.
However, only a fraction of the caribou was discovered. The remains consisted of the front part of the creature’s body and included a section of the torso, the forelegs and the head. And as with the young wolf, the caribou’s skin, hair and muscle were exceptionally well preserved.
Caribou appeared two million years ago across the tundra of Beringia, the prehistoric land that extended from the Yukon to Siberia. The Yukon was the site where the most ancient known caribou remains were discovered; those themselves dated back some 1.6 million years.
And prehistoric Native Americans had a very close relationship to caribou. As Roberta Joseph, chief of the Yukon’s Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people, said in a Yukon government press release announcing the mummy finds, “The caribou has fed and clothed our people for thousands of years.”
Furthermore, it would be difficult to overestimate the importance and rarity of these discoveries. Elsa Panciroli, a University of Edinburgh paleontologist, told The Guardian, “Ice age wolf bones are relatively common in the Yukon, but having an animal preserved with skin and fur is just exceptional – you just want to reach out and stroke it. It’s an evocative glimpse into the ice age world.”
And Zazula pointed out that while the mummified body of a horse had been uncovered in the Klondike three decades ago, no other well-preserved animal remains had been found since then until the bodies of the wolf and the caribou had come to light. And Zazula explained, “We think this is actually probably the oldest mummified mammal tissue in the world for soft-tissue skin, hair and muscle.”
Now, scientists are making a detailed study of the two mummified animals; this will include genetic testing. They hope to learn more about the creatures as well as the habitat they lived in. There are also plans to exhibit the two specimens at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in the city of Whitehorse.