Climate Change Reveals 40,000 Year Old Wolf Head in Siberia

The preserved head will offer clues to the genetic make-up of ancient animals.
Jessica Miley

In 2019, an enormous decapitated wolf head was found in Siberia. The head is thought to have been frozen about 40,000 years ago and unearthed due to changing climatic conditions.

Measuring 40 cms in length, the head was discovered by a local man walking along the edge of the Tirekhtyakh River in the Russian Republic of Sakha (aka Yakutia).

"This is a unique discovery of the first-ever remains of a fully grown Pleistocene wolf with its tissue preserved," Palaeontology Albert Protopopov from the Republic of Sakha Academy of Sciences told The Siberian Times.

"We will be comparing it to modern-day wolves to understand how the species has evolved and to reconstruct its appearance."

Brain tissue intact

The specimen is unlike anything discovered before it. The head is in remarkably good shape - its teeth, fangs, skin and even brain tissue has been preserved by its years in the ice.

The Yakutia area is ripe with frozen finds. In 2015 and 2017, a number of other discoveries made news including the discovery of ancient cave lion cubs.

Pleistocene wolf
The Pleistocene wolf’s head. Source: Albert Protopopov

Protopopov, together with researchers from Sweden and Japan, will study the wolf's head. The research group will analyze the beast's DNA and using non-invasive methods look inside its skull.

CT scan
CT Scan. Source: Albert Protopopov, Naoki Suzuki

Estimates so far suggest that the head belonged to an adult wolf that was two to four years old at that time. Other wolf heads have been found in the area, but this is the first one that has been discovered in such good condition with so much preserved brain tissue. Other specimens have tended to be smaller infants. The wolf joins a recently discovered cave lion club. The cub seems to have died shortly after birth and was frozen and preserved in ice.

"Their muscles, organs, and brains are in good condition," Palaeontologist Naoki Suzuki from the Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo told The Asahi Shimbun.

"We want to assess their physical capabilities and ecology by comparing them with lions and wolves of today."

Ancient horse set to be cloned

The implications of these discoveries go beyond just studying the creatures' remains. In April 2019, scientists announced their intention to try and clone an ancient horse discovered, intact, in the Batagaika Crater in eastern Siberia.

The 42,000-year-old horse was found in a very well-preserved condition to the point where liquid blood was extracted from the horse's heart. Usually, blood coagulates or turns to powder as the liquids inside it ages.

The liquid blood found in the horse's heart meant that there is the possibility of cloning the foal. But first the cloning team led by Semyon Grigoriev, the head of the Mammoth Museum at North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk needed to determine if the blood contains viable cells. Tragically, Grigoriev passed away in 2020, and there have been no additional updates on the experiment.

The baby horse is a Lena foal (Equus caballus lenensis). Dubbed buttercup by its caretakers, it is thought to have died after getting stuck in the mud when it was 2 months old. The mud then froze around the 98-centimeter high foal encasing it for millennia.

Its icy death bed preserved the animal down to the most minute detail including having a tiny amount of urine in the bladder.

The thawing of ice due to climate change is thought to be contributing to the recent spate of discoveries.

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