On June 21, Jeff Bond, a manager with the Yukon Geological Survey, was in Dawson City and preparing to do some field work with visiting colleagues when he got a call from the territory’s paleontologist, Grant Zazula, who is based Whitehorse.
Earlier that day, gold miners had unearthed a baby woolly mammoth buried in permafrost at a site near Dawson, Dr. Zazula said. Could Mr. Bond go and help them recover the ice-age specimen?
“I knew right away this was super significant,” Mr. Bond said during a news briefing on Wednesday. After the call, he said, he climbed into the truck where other members of his group were waiting and told them, “Hey, everybody, ... change of plans.”
His account, together with those of the miners and members of the Trʼondek Hwechʼin First Nation, on whose traditional territory the mammoth was found, added new details to the story of the discovery.
Measuring only 1.4 metres, the mummified mammoth is a female and is estimated to have been about 30 to 35 days old when it died, likely by drowning at the edge of a river.It has been dubbed Nun cho ga, a name that translates to “big animal baby” in the Han language of the region.
Mr. Bond said that once the specimen was safely recovered to avoid an approaching storm, he and his colleague made an initial survey of the discovery site and then returned the following day to learn more.
He said Nun cho ga was found three to four metres below a layer of ancient volcanic ash that is thought to be about 29,000 years old.
“That gives us some clues that [the age of the mammoth] is going to be in the 30,000- to 40,000-year-old time frame,” he said, adding that it corresponds to a relatively warmer period between cold stretches during the ice age.
Nun cho ga must have been buried swiftly in sediment after death, since much of the mammoth remains intact. Recovered in two pieces, the specimen still has its ears, tail and trunk, making it the most complete example of a woolly mammoth ever found. Its analysis promises to yield a wealth of new information about the extinct species.
“One of the things we want to understand is how an elephant, which is what a woolly mammoth is, managed to adapt to ice age conditions in the northernmost part of the world, and do so very successfully over hundreds of thousands of years,” said Ross MacPhee, a senior curator with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who participated in the virtual briefing.
Dr. MacPhee added that Nun cho ga joins a handful of similar specimens found in Siberia that collectively can shed light on various aspects of mammoth growth, including teeth and vital organs.
This could be revealing, he said, because in the challenging environment of the ice age Arctic, young animals likely had to grow up fast to survive.
Danielle Fraser, a research scientist with the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, who was not involved in the find, said it was possible to ask such questions about a mummified specimen because of the preservation of soft tissues.
“Mummies can provide dietary information through stomach contents and chemical signatures from their tissues such as hair, skin, and body fat, detailed genetic information, and data on the diseases they experienced,” she said.
Daniel Fisher, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan, said a genetic analysis of Nun cho ga would likely yield information about variation within the species, particularly its North American population.
“Every new specimen is a potential source of new insights, especially when our entire sample still consists of only a few individuals,” he said.
Dr. Fisher cautioned that much would depend on how well Nun cho ga is preserved and how its analysis proceeds.
On that score, Indigenous representatives and officials with the territorial government say they are working together on next steps while the mammoth is in cold storage in Dawson.
“We’re in no rush,” said Brian Groves, senior manager of heritage for the territory.
Debbie Nagano, director of heritage for Trʼondek Hwechʼin First Nation, said it will be essential to involve the community as a stakeholder and to consider opportunities for education and for community youth in deciding how to proceed.
“It’s going to be exciting. That’s for sure,” she said.
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