Frozen mummies of ice age animals typically come from Russia.
Not this time.
On June 21, miners from the Yukon – a northern Canadian territory – announced they struck gold. Not literal gold, the item they were searching for – but rather gold of a much different variety. Their mining expedition near Yukon’s Dawson City turned up gold for paleontologists the world over:
A frozen baby mammoth.
The miners quickly got hold of Yukon paleontologist Dr. Grant Zazula, who rushed to the Eureka Creek to investigate. As Zazula noted, the mammoth is a near-complete specimen, fully equipped with a tail and trunk and an appearance reminiscent of an Egyptian Mummy. While the ‘discovery of a lifetime’ phrase gets thrown around often, it is appropriate for this occasion.
Not only was the baby mammoth found on Indigenous land, but also on National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada. Alongside members of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in tribe, whose land the mammoth is from, paleontologists participated in a prayer circle to unveil the mammoth to the local community[i]. Integrating Indigenous and paleontological practices makes the mammoth’s discovery even more special.
The mammoth was named “Nun cho ga,” which translates to “big baby animal” in the language of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people. A geological survey undertaken on the site found that Nun cho ga sat in permafrost for almost 40,000 years before being unearthed. Over 40,000 years ago, the earth’s last glacial maximum had yet to commence, but it was still in the throes of an ice age. The cold climates fostered the evolution of the mammoths, allowing little Nun cho ga and her relatives to thrive.
The discovery of a mammoth calf can reveal a lot about the world in which they lived. What food did it, or more appropriately did its mother, eat before it died? How healthy was the animal, and how can that reflect the environment in which it lived? How much fat did the calf have? Did it have any fur, and can this help reveal when the mammoth was born in the year? These are all questions that the mummified mammoth calf could help to answer.
What circumstances led to Nun cho ga’s untimely death? Currently, the answer is unknown. Though future investigations may reveal a dramatic fate, it is likely that Nun cho ga got stuck in the mud where she became encased for thousands of years.
Finds like Nun cho ga are incredible but not unprecedented. In May 2007, a frozen 35-day-old mammoth was discovered by a reindeer herder in northern Russia. The baby mammoth, named Lyuba, was so well preserved that milk and feces were found in her intestines[ii]. Could Nun cho ga reveal similar results? Dr. Zazula stated that a glimpse of her intestines contained grass, so it’s entirely possible[iii]. Only time will tell…
As global warming causes arctic permafrost to melt, the discovery of frozen animals is becoming more frequent. In 2016, a mummified Grey Wolf cub was also discovered on Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in land in the Yukon[iv]. She was named Zhùr. Steppe bison mummies from the Yukon and Alaska are well-known and used to analyze climate change during the late Pleistocene Epoch[v]. Over the last few years, mammoths, birds, lion cubs, rhinos, and cave bears have thawed from the Russian permafrost.
Who knows what other animals might turn up in the future? I would love to see a giant ground sloth. Fossils of ground sloths from Yukon and Alaska are known, so it is possible.
For now, let’s appreciate Nun cho ga: Canada’s frozen baby.
I hope you enjoyed this article! If you want to know more about some Ice Age animals, then I recommend you read about the Siberian Unicorn, an ancient rhinoceros, here at Max’s Blogosaurus!
I do not take credit for any images found in this article.
[i] Proulx, Michel. “’She’s Perfect and She’s Beautiful’: Frozen Baby Woolly Mammoth Discovered in Yukon Gold Fields | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 24 June 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/frozen-whole-baby-woolly-mammoth-yukon-gold-fields-1.6501128.
[ii] Fisher, Daniel C., et al. “Anatomy, Death, and Preservation of a Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus Primigenius) Calf, Yamal Peninsula, Northwest Siberia.” Quaternary International, vol. 255, 2012, pp. 94–105., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2011.05.040.
[iii] Proulx, Michel. “’She’s Perfect and She’s Beautiful’: Frozen Baby Woolly Mammoth Discovered in Yukon Gold Fields | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 24 June 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/frozen-whole-baby-woolly-mammoth-yukon-gold-fields-1.6501128.
[iv] Kawaja, Cheryl. “Mummified Ice Age Wolf Pup’s Last Meal Was Likely Salmon, 1st Published Study of 2016 Yukon Discovery Reveals | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 21 Dec. 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/yukon-ice-age-wolf-pup-research-paper-1.5847730.
[v] Eisenstadt, Abigail. “Bison Mummies Help Scientists Ruminate on Ancient Climate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 2 Nov. 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/blogs/national-museum-of-natural-history/2020/11/02/bison-mummies-help-scientists-ruminate-ancient-climate/.