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Prehistoric wolf head found as Siberian permafrost thaws

The soil in most of Yakutia remains frozen all year round, preventing ancient tusks and carcasses from decomposing. Specimens have been emerging ever more frequently as climate change gradually thaws the permafrost.

Well-preserved infant cave lions have previously been discovered nearby.

From left: Yakov Androsov, Albert Protopopov, Gennady Boyeskorov, Valery Plotnikov and Stanislav Kolesov from the Russian Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha show off the body of a cave lion at the Kingdom of Permafrost museum in Yakutsk in 2015.

From left: Yakov Androsov, Albert Protopopov, Gennady Boyeskorov, Valery Plotnikov and Stanislav Kolesov from the Russian Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha show off the body of a cave lion at the Kingdom of Permafrost museum in Yakutsk in 2015.Credit:Russian Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha via AP

The mammoth tusk industry, which has been booming after China banned the carving of elephant ivory, has become the main source of palaeontological discoveries in the region, and the tusk hunters gave the head to Protopopov.

Unsure if it was thousands of years old or just a few hundred, he passed a sample to the Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, where the head was found to date to 40 millennia ago. It was also discovered the wolf was between two and four years old when it died.

Researchers at the Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo performed tomographic scans to map muscles and tissue in the specimen.

Both the Swedish and Japanese facilities will continue to study the DNA and internal anatomy of the head, which includes a fully preserved brain.

The best preserved mammoth ever found, a 42,000-year-old baby named Lyuba, was shown at an exhibition at the Australian Museum in Sydney in 2017.

The best preserved mammoth ever found, a 42,000-year-old baby named Lyuba, was shown at an exhibition at the Australian Museum in Sydney in 2017. Credit:Louise Kennerley

Working with Russian scientists, they plan to compare the animal’s genetic make-up and morphology to the wolves of today.

It is not clear whether the “Pleistocene wolf” was larger than contemporary wolves, but its jaws were definitely stronger.

“They could kill bigger animals – probably the biggest was a bison,” Protopopov said.

“It’s important for science because wolves in the Pleistocene were broadly dispersed like cave lions,” he said. “There were lots of wolves but we don’t know much about them.”

Several species of wolves lived during the Pleistocene ice age, including the celebrated dire wolf in the Americas.

Based on bones found in Siberia, both dogs and modern wolves are believed to have split off from a wolf ancestor at least 27,000 years ago.

Siberian huskies carry some genes of this ancient wolf today. The head of the Ice Age wolf was unveiled at a woolly mammoth exhibition in Tokyo last week.

It also featured a new Siberian cave lion cub specimen named Spartak, which weighs less than a kilogram. It is in near-pristine condition, like the wolf head, and will be compared to modern lions.

Scientists in Yakutia and Tokyo also hope one day to clone a woolly mammoth from tissue discovered in the Siberian permafrost, although such a project is not possible with current techniques.

The Telegraph, London

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