Brian McCaughan thought he saw something unusual in a newly exposed layer of permafrost where his mining crew was working at Eureka Creek, Yukon, last Tuesday.
When he stopped to take a closer look, the general manager of the gold mining company Treadstone Inc. was shocked to find himself staring into the mummified face of a baby mammoth – the most complete and well-preserved member of the extinct species ever unearthed in North America.
“There will be one thing that stands out in a person’s entire life and I can guarantee you this is my one thing,” Mr. McCaughan later told Yukon officials, who announced the find on Friday together with representatives of the Trʼondek Hwechʼin First Nation, in whose traditional territory the creature was found.
At a ceremony earlier this week, the mammoth was named Nun cho ga by Trʼondek Hwechʼin Elders, which translates to “big baby animal” in the Han language.
“This find is unbelievable,” said Debbie Nagano, director of heritage for the nation. “The powerful effect it has leaves you speechless at times.”
The stunningly life-like specimen of the baby woolly mammoth, a female, measures about 140 centimetres long and is thought to have been just one month old when it became stuck in the mud near a river bank and died some 30,000 years ago.
The specimen is broken into two pieces but is otherwise complete, “from tail to the tip of her trunk, with eyelids and ears and little toe nails,” said Grant Zazula, a paleontologist with the Yukon government. “We know that that kind of preservation is only possible in permafrost when an animal is buried very very quickly after it has passed away.”
Dr. Zazula said he was in Whitehorse, about six hours from the discovery site, when he was first alerted to the find. He was able to send out an alert to colleagues, and soon afterward a team from the Yukon Geological Survey was able to reach the site. The team gathered samples of hair, frozen vegetation, volcanic ash and other evidence that would help place the mammoth in its ecological context. The work had to be done quickly because of an oncoming rainstorm.
“One hour more and the mammoth would not have been found because she would have been washed away in a mudslide,” he said.
After its removal from the permafrost, the mummified creature was transported to a freezer in Dawson City.
While mummified mammoths have previously been found in Siberia, there is no other equal to Nun cho ga in the Americas. A partial mammoth calf, named Effie, was found in Alaska in 1948.
Future studies of the Yukon specimen have the potential to reveal new information about the North American population of the species, which went extinct on the continent approximately 10,000 years ago.
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