Astonishing archaeological finds in permafrost permafrost are usually more familiar than Russian Siberia, but this news comes from North America: While searching for gold, miners at Eureka Creek south of Dawson City in northwest Canada suddenly stumbled upon something tough in the mud.
Their exceptional find is a surprisingly well-preserved mummified woolly mammoth. The Yukon Territory government said the female cub is “the most complete mammoth found in North America”.
As in eastern Russia, the permafrost soils of Canada and Alaska are gradually thawing as a result of climate change. This has already revealed some wonderful fossils in the Yukon. But mummified remains with skin and hair as well-preserved as the current find are rarely discovered.
Beautiful and perfectly preserved
Representatives of Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation gave the baby mammoth the name Nun cho ga (Big Baby Animal).
According to initial estimates, the 140 cm long animal was about a month old when it died. According to Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula, who was summoned, the mammoth had “very small nails and nails that have not yet fully hardened.” Nun cho ga probably died during the Ice Age and then remained in the permafrost for more than 30,000 years.
“As an Ice Age paleontologist, one of my lifelong dreams has been to meet a real woolly mammoth. That dream came true today,” Zazola said excitedly. “Nun cho ga is beautiful and one of the most Ice Age stuffed animals ever discovered in the world. I’m excited to learn more about it.”
About 300,000 years ago, the herbivorous woolly mammoth inhabited the vast steppes and tundra of North America and Eurasia. They died out on the mainland about 13,000-11,000 years ago – they existed only on a few remote Arctic islands for a few more centuries until the Holocene, that is, until the beginning of the warm period.
Thanks to their shaggy fur and thick layers of insulating fat, mammoths can withstand temperatures as low as -50°C.
The woolly mammoth, with its long, curved tusks and powerful bodies, was a majestic sight. With their shaggy, waterproof skins and thick layers of insulating fat, they’re able to brave freezing temperatures of -50 degrees Celsius. Their ears and tails were relatively small in order to emit as little body heat as possible. Large fat deposits in the neck are likely to serve as an additional reserve for heat and fat in particularly cold winters.
The newly discovered mammoth is the second baby woolly mammoth to be discovered in North America. In 1948, parts of a mammoth calf, later called Ivy, were found in a gold mine in the US state of Alaska.
Another woolly mammoth was discovered from Siberian permafrost in 2007. The specimen called Lyuba is estimated to be around 42,000 years old.
The woolly mammoth is said to be a clone
The discovery of the well-preserved mammoth should interest American geneticist George Church of Harvard University in Cambridge. In 2021 he founded a startup called Colossal that wants to use genetic engineering to revive the extinct woolly mammoth.
Mammoths already inhabited the vast steppes and tundra of North America and Eurasia about 300,000 years ago.
Since the mammoth genetic material available so far was not sufficient to clone the woolly mammoth, Church wanted to use the CRISPR-Cas9 gene scissors to fuse cells from the endangered Asian elephant with the mammoth’s primitive genes.
“The goal is to create a cold-resistant elephant that looks and behaves like a mammoth,” Church says. The surrogate is then supposed to carry the hybrid mammoth. According to the church, the first calf could be born as early as 2027.
Mammoths can contribute to the fact that permafrost thaws less quickly, and thus the release of climate-damaging greenhouse gases in severely frozen soil can be prevented, claims American geneticist Church. The mammoth was trampling on the snow and making it hard for the ground to melt.
However, experts have great doubts about this theory – and above all about the ecological meaning of the resettlement of the cloned woolly mammoth.