This brown, mangled ball of fur and claws was initially unidentifiable.
X-ray scans revealed, however, that this grapefruit-sized lump is a 30,000-year-old mummified ground squirrel from the ice age.
According to the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, a gold miner discovered the mysterious fur ball in the Klondike gold fields near Dawson City, Yukon, in 2018.
“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,” Grant Zazula, a Yukon government paleontologist, told CBC.
He took it to veterinarian Jess Heath for further examination. Heath used X-rays to determine that the frozen hair ball was actually a young, curled-up Arctic ground squirrel. It most likely died during its first year of hibernation.
“We could see that it was in great condition and it was just curled up like it was sleeping,” Heath told CBC.
“I’m really impressed that someone recognized it for what it was. From the outside, it just kind of looks like a brown blob. It looks a bit like a brown rock,” she said.
The Yukon’s Klondike gold fields have been covered in permafrost — frozen soil — since the ice age. That makes the area ideal for preserving creatures that died back then, complete with hair and nails.
Previously, gold miners discovered a mummified wolf pup and an immaculately preserved baby mammoth.
Such discoveries are likely to become more common as global temperatures continue to rise as a result of human emissions of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. As a result, the permafrost is thawing, exposing everything from mummified creatures to viruses and anthrax deposits.
A ground squirrel for the ages
This squirrel was discovered in the Tr’ondk Hwch’in people’s Traditional Territory.
The same species of Arctic ground squirrel lives in the Yukon today, though they resemble groundhogs rather than tree squirrels.
An Arctic ground squirrel, the same species as the mummified ice age critter.DeAgostini/Getty Images
Arctic ground squirrels hibernate by building underground nests. Many of these nests have survived the ice age and are common in the Yukon, but finding a preserved squirrel like this is unusual.
“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 and its skin and its hair and all that, it’s just so visceral. It brings it so to life,” Zazula said.
“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 told CBC.
The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre posted photos of the mummy and its X-ray on Facebook, announcing that the specimen would be on display soon.
“It’s amazing to think that this little guy was running around the Yukon several thousand years ago,” the post read.