‘Amazing story of survival’: 30,000-year-old mummified ground squirrel found in Yukon

The ancient remains of a ground squirrel unearthed by miners near Dawson City in the Yukon still hold lessons 30,000 years after its death, an expert says.

At first glance, the little brown find looks more like a crumpled leather ball than a rare archaeological find, but closer inspection reveals fur, small ears, and claws.

Only X-rays taken at the Whitehorse veterinarian’s office confirmed the discovery of a fully mummified animal, said Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula.

“The arctic ground squirrel is of course very small, it’s curled up into a ball, so it’s hard to tell what it is just by looking at it,” he said.

“But when you look at the X-ray, you see this curly skeleton, the head, the leg bones, and the tail, all curled together, and it looks amazing on the X-ray.”

The remains, thought to be of an animal that died during hibernation, were discovered by miners in Hester Creek near Dawson City a few years ago. The palm-sized find will be revealed to the public next month when the Yukkor Interpretive Center in Whitehorse reopens.

Zazula says he first became fascinated with ancient arctic ground squirrels when he inspected their nests, finding hundreds preserved in northern permafrost.

By looking at the configuration of these nests, which resemble small hay balls, paleontologists have been able to identify the Ice Age plants, leaves and seeds that lived on the Bering land bridge – which once connected North America to Russia.

While nests are more common, the squirrel mummy found at Hester Creek is one of the few squirrel mummies ever found, Zazula said.

Examples are the Canadian Museum of Nature and the American Museum of Natural History in Ottawa. Others were discovered in the 1940s by prisoners working in Siberian gulags or Soviet labor camps.

Mummified remains provide a clearer picture of what ancient animals looked like alive than fossilized bones, Zazula said.

“Their real value is the real educational value, because they really bring this ancient ice age world to life,” he said.

“It’s one thing to look at the bones, it’s neat to look at the bones, but seeing mummified versions of those animals from the past just brings it to life.”

Zazula, who completed a doctorate in squirrels, said studying these animals is particularly interesting because they survived the Ice Age for millions of years and could provide information on how modern ground squirrels now living in the Yukon are affected by climate change.

“Many Ice Age animals became extinct, or no longer live in the Yukon. So the arctic ground squirrel in the Yukon is an amazing story of survival through change,” he said.

“They’ve been around for millions of years, they’ve adapted to all these permanent, really remarkable changes and climates and environments, and they’re still with us today.”

scientific wildlife

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *