Back to the Ice Age: 30,000-year-old Arctic ground squirrel was perfectly preserved in frost

The clump of brown fur and skin was no ordinary furball; it contained tiny hands, claws, ears, and a tail.
Deena Theresa
The 30,000 year old arctic ground squirrel that was discovered at Hester Creek.
The 30,000 year old arctic ground squirrel that was discovered at Hester Creek.

Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre 

What are the chances of finding a perfectly preserved Arctic ground squirrel from the Ice Age? Pretty slim.

In 2018, a mummified Arctic ground squirrel, 30,000 years old, was found in Hester Creek near Dawson City, Yukon, curled up in a ball. A dried-up clump of brown fur and skin, tiny hands and ears visible if you look closely. Now, Yukon paleontologists have shown us a glimpse of the little one as they prepare to exhibit it at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse later this year.

Arctic ground squirrels are commonplace in Yukon, and Ice Age nests are regularly found preserved. But, a full squirrel is rare, Grant Zazula, a Yukon government paleontologist, told CBC.

"Some people get really, really excited when they find that giant woolly mammoth leg or, you know, the big tusks or the big skulls. But for me, the Arctic ground squirrel fossils, the nests, and now this mummified squirrel, are really the coolest things that we do have. They're my favorites, for sure," he said.

An X-ray reveals young squirrel in first year of hibernation

"It's not quite recognizable until you see these little hands and these claws, and you see a little tail, and then you see ears," Zazula told CBC. "I study bones all the time, and they're exciting, they're really neat. But when you see an animal that's perfectly preserved, that's 30,000 years old, and you can see its face, skin, hair, and all that, it's just so visceral. It brings it so to life."

Local vet Alpine Veterinary Medical Center assisted with taking X-rays of the squirrel. Veterinarian Dr. Jess Heath was unsure if the X-ray would reveal much, as bones of mummified animals have lost calcium over the years, blurring X-rays, CBC reported. But everyone was in for a surprise. The X-rays revealed a solid bone structure.

"We could see that it was in great condition, and it was just curled up like it was sleeping," Heath said.

The X-ray suggested that it was actually a young squirrel in its first year of hibernation when it died. It is unclear what killed it.

"We often see these big animals like woolly mammoths and everything, but there's a lot to be learned about the small critters that were living beneath the feet of these wooly mammoths as well," Zazula said.

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