Fossilized wolf pup sheds light on wolf migration

When Neil Loveless found a tiny, fos­sil­ized body com­plete with head, tail, fur and skin thaw­ing in per­ma­frost, he thought it was a dog. Although it was not the pre­cious met­al the gold miner was look­ing for, he stored it in a freez­er un­til a pa­le­on­to­lo­gist could check it out.

The re­mains, now iden­ti­fied as a Pleistocene gray wolf pup about sev­en weeks old, were found in the Klondike gold fields of the Canadian Yukon. The fe­male pup lived and died on the an­ces­tral land of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, who have a cul­tur­al and spir­itu­al re­la­tion­ship with wolves. The little pup was named Zhùr, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in word for wolf.

It’s rare to find fos­sil­ized mam­mals from an­cient times, es­pe­cially one as in­tact as Zhùr. Scientific stud­ies con­duc­ted since the dis­cov­ery in 2016, re­veal that Zhùr ate a diet rich in fish, not the more tra­di­tion­al fare of muskox or cari­bou. The fish were prob­ably caught in the nearby Klondike River by her moth­er or oth­er mem­bers of the pack.

Zhùr was old enough to ven­ture out­side the den, was well nour­ished, showed no sign of dis­ease and her re­mains did not ap­pear to have been dis­turbed by pred­at­ors or scav­engers. Scientists spec­u­late that the young wolf died in­side the den when the roof col­lapsed suddenly.

Other fos­sil­ized wolf re­mains have been found in north­ern climes such as Siberia but Zhùr’s is the most com­plete, miss­ing only the eyes. And the ap­prox­im­ately 56,000-year-old body provides tan­tal­iz­ing clues to the move­ment and evol­u­tion of wolves in North America.

Over the years, there have been nu­mer­ous the­or­ies re­gard­ing the mi­gra­tion of wolves between Europe and North America. Genetic tests show that when alive, Zhùr was closely re­lated to ice age wolves in­hab­it­ing Europe but not with wolves found in North America where she lived. Her mum­mi­fied body provides a vi­tal clue to a sig­ni­fic­ant change in the pop­u­la­tion dy­nam­ic of grey wolves in Canada at the end of the ice age.

Due to its sci­entif­ic and cul­tur­al im­port­ance, Zhùr’s body has been ac­cep­ted by the Canadian Conservation Institute and is now on dis­play in an ex­hib­it at the Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse.

Feature photo cour­tesy Yukon Government 

 

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