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21 September 2016

5 of the Most Well-Preserved Ice Age Animals

Ice is one of the best preservers of tissue, either living or dead. It works so well that in the past, human remains from hundreds, or even thousands of years ago have been found on mountains, and people have actually checked to see if anyone recently went missing in the area.

Some of the most important specimens of ice age life have been found encased in ice, to the point where things like cloning have actually become serious considerations.

The Yakutia Puppies

Img source: Twitter / @brando_lives
When a group of mammoth tusk hunters go out, they tend to expect to find animal remains, but usually of the larger, less domesticated variety. They were looking through a deposit of bones on the bank of a river in the Arctic tundra, not far from Yakutsk. Instead, they found the 12,460-year-old remains of two three-month-old puppies.

It’s not immediately clear whether the dogs were domesticated or not, but domestic dogs have recorded as far back as 16,000 years ago. The puppies (likely siblings) are so well preserved that scientists are currently reconstructing their genomes, and much about their connection to modern dogs can be found from examining their still remarkably intact brains.

Sasha the Rhino

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Despite having supposedly been one of the most common animals on the Eurasian planes during the last ice age, precious little is really known about the woolly rhino. Intact remains are very few and far between, but by far the best specimen is the Kolyma Rhino. Once again, it was discovered in Yakutia, this time by hunters in 2015. The remains are thought to be around 10,000 years old.

Once again the body is that of a juvenile. An adult body was found in 2007, but it was far less well preserved. Much of the fur and tissue was found in good condition, as well as the mouth, nostrils, one ear and even one of the eyes. One thing we do know about woolly rhinos is that they bred very slowly, so the likelihood of finding an intact juvenile body was extremely low.

The Yukagir Bison

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Obviously, Bison still roam the world today, but the ice age variety lived on a grander scale, standing at over 2 metres tall. As you might be figuring out at this stage, the Russian Yakutia region is something of a goldmine for ice age discoveries, and in 2011 it yielded yet another – the remains of an adult steppe bison. It’s been carbon-dated to around 10,500 years ago, using samples from the horns and hair.

The bison was so well preserved that even the pollen in its gut could be examined, giving a better idea of the kind of food these animals preferred. Estimates suggest that, when alive, the animal weighed somewhere between 500 and 600kg. From the way it was found, it is thought to have died of natural causes.

The Siberian Cave Lions

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Yup, Yakutia again, wouldn’t you know it. Cave lions are a known but mysterious species which only existed in great numbers during the Pleistocene. Previously only bones and teeth had ever been found, but last year two cubs were found, thought to be Eurasian cave lions, one of the largest types of lion ever to have existed. The remains are around 12,000 years old.

A few months ago, the bodies were handed over to a group of cloning experts in South Korea. They extracted skin and muscle tissue, with the final aim being to improve our understanding of frozen remains, and how we could use them to extract DNA for cloning in the not too distant future.

Lyuba the Mammoth

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It could be argued that Lyuba provides a better insight into prehistoric life than any other single discovery to date. She was found in 2007 by a reindeer breeder in the Yamal Peninsula. She nearly never even made it to proper storage, as the discoverer’s cousin had actually sold her off for two snowmobiles. Once recovered, she was taken to the Shemanovsky Museum in Salekhard.

Lyuba is thought be have been around 35 days old at the time of death, and the remains themselves are 41,800 years old. Her body was so well preserved that the actual cause of the mass extinction which occurred during the ice age some 4000 years ago could well be found from examining her teeth, and other remains. Intact samples of milk and faeces have been found inside her.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.