Caveman's best friends? Preserved Ice Age puppies awe scientists
By Maria Antonova
March 28, 2016 3:37 AM
Moscow (AFP) - The hunters searching for mammoth tusks were drawn to
the steep riverbank by a deposit of ancient bones. To their
astonishment, they discovered an Ice Age puppy's snout peeking out from
Five years later, a pair of puppies perfectly
preserved in Russia's far northeast region of Yakutia and dating back
12,460 years has mobilised scientists across the world.
"To find a
carnivorous mammal intact with skin, fur and internal organs -- this
has never happened before in history," said Sergei Fyodorov, head of
exhibitions at the Mammoth Museum of the North-Eastern Federal
University in the regional capital of Yakutsk.
And the discovery could contribute to the lively scientific debate over the origin of domesticated dogs.
the hunters stumbled on the first frozen pup in 2011, they alerted
Fyodorov who immediately flew out to the remote Arctic tundra, about
4,700 kilometres (2,900 miles) from Moscow and only 130 kilometres from
the Laptev Sea, which borders the Arctic Ocean.
Last year he
returned for a more thorough look and found the second puppy close to
the same spot, farther down the slope. Both had died when they were
about three months old.
They most likely come from the same litter, said Fyodorov.
The discovery of 12,460-year-old puppies in Russia could contribute to the lively scientific debate …
Last week he oversaw the removal of the second puppy's remarkably well-preserved brain -- "the first in the world", he said.
"Puppies are very rare, because they have thin bones and delicate skulls," he said.
The duo have been named the Tumat Dog, after the nearest village to the site.
said a preliminary look at the mammoth remains also found at the dig
suggested some had been butchered and burned, hinting at the presence of
humans. It remains to be seen, however, whether the puppies were
domesticated or wild.
The answer can only be determined by reconstructing their genomes, which would take at least a year.
- Grass-eating dogs? -
Scientists from the Mammoth Museum of the North-Eastern Federal University extract the brain of a pu …
"Thus far, the lineages of wolves that likely gave rise to dogs
have not yet been discovered and it's possible that these puppies could
be on that lineage, which would be very exciting," said evolutionary
biologist Greger Larson of University of Oxford, one of the scientists
behind a collaborative project aimed at finding out when and where dogs
became the first domesticated animals.
What makes the dog
particularly intriguing is that it managed to become "man's best friend"
even before humans became settled farmers.
It is still unclear
whether dogs were domesticated in one place or in several places
independently, and whether the process started when humans took in cubs
or whether wolves themselves gradually drifted to human sites in search
Whatever their precise lineage, the Tumat pups will keep Fyodorov and other scientists busy for some time.
second puppy's preserved brain will be compared with that of modern
dogs and wolves. Parasites found on its body will be analysed, as will
the contents of its stomach, which Fyodorov is particularly excited
"When we opened it, we were very surprised. The second
puppy's stomach is mostly full of twigs and grass," he said, wondering
if perhaps the animals were not exclusively carnivorous or whether they
Graphic on the origins of the domestic dog (AFP Photo/Adrian LEUNG, John SAEKI)
"This material is really exceptional and unique," said Mietje
Germonpre, a palaeontologist from the Royal Belgian Institute who
partnered up with Fyodorov on the project and came to Yakutsk to oversee
the autopsy of the second puppy earlier this month.
that soft tissue is preserved will give much more information compared
to information that can be obtained from 'normal' fossils," she said,
meaning bones and teeth.
- Permafrost secrets -
lamented the long time it takes to get ancient biological material to
suitable labs due to financial constraints, the rugged terrain and red
tape which sometimes means that samples reach laboratories only six
"Everyone understands that the tissue of mammoth
fauna loses its structure with every passing second, even in the
freezer," he said.
melting permafrost is likely to yield up even more treasures in the
coming years, he added, saying the number of reported prehistoric finds
has grown "severalfold" in the last decade.
Warm and wet weather and flash floods have been a big contributor to the thaw, he said.
"Right now it's 0 degrees (Celsius) here. That should not be the case in March."
better transport and technology becomes affordable, he said, locals are
embarking on expeditions to more and more remote corners of Siberia to
look for the precious and lucrative mammoth tusks, which can sell for
tens of thousands of dollars and are increasingly prized by Chinese
carvers given trade bans on elephant ivory.
In Russia, indigenous tribes are allowed to hunt for ancient remains on their ancestral lands.
"Our land is locked in by permafrost, but little by little it is revealing its secrets," Fyodorov said.