University of Alaska Fairbanks joins study of prehistoric mummified wolf remains

Published: Jan. 7, 2021 at 4:17 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) has participated in the study of wolf pup remains that have been dated to more than 50,000 years old.

Named Zhur, the pup was discovered in July 2016 in the Yukon Territory of Canada by gold miner Neil Loveless.

Dr. Grant Zazula, Yukon Government Paleontologist, said, “Seeing mummified flesh with hair and skin, we know we had something special.”

First Nations in the region were consulted on the find. “Of course they were super excited and interested because they’ve been living on that land for thousands of years and have a deep emotional and spiritual connection to the land and anything that comes from the land,” Zazula explained.

Dr. Matthew Wooller, a UAF Professor in the College of Fisheries and Ocean Science, was contacted by Zazula, an old friend, to conduct analysis of the remains to determine what the pup ate and what environment it lived in.

“We were part of that team to create a holistic picture of Zhur and Zhur’s environment and ecology, the diet and ecology,” Wooler said.

Zazula said, “I’m used to seeing skeletons or bones, so when you have things like flesh, and skin, and hair, and fingernails and claws, those provide so many interesting opportunities to study and to learn about the animal.”

According to Wooller, stable isotope analysis of the remains yielded unexpected results. While some may imagine ancient wolves hunting bison and other large mammals, “What we found with the isotopes was that it was actually consuming quite a lot of, the majority of its diet was in fact aquatic resources. So that could be water birds, it could even be salmon, for instance.”

“There were lions running around, there were scimitar cats, there were giant short-faced bears, there was this whole cornucopia of large mammals around,” Zazula said, adding “In the Ice Age environment, where you have lions and scimitar cats and bears, oh my, and you’re just a little wolf, you’re kind of small on the food chain.” This, according to Zazula, may have forced Zhur into a more opportunistic diet.

“With ongoing climate change here in Alaska, there may be a greater frequency of these types of amazing fossils kind of appearing, these mummified creatures appearing,” Wooller said.

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