Puppies Of The Permafrost

In the far northeast region of Russia, in an area called Yakutia, portions of the permafrost are melting.  From time to time, the melt exposes the tusks of long-dead wooly mammoths, which are prized by collectors, so local hunters regularly prowl the melt zone, looking for trophies they can sell.

information_items_3462Instead, five years ago the hunters found . . . a puppy, still locked in the ice but apparently perfectly preserved.

When the hunters made the find they alerted scientists who flew to the area and found another frozen puppy from the same litter nearby.  The puppies date back 12,460 years, to the last Ice Age.  The remains of the two puppies have now been extracted from the permafrost and are being studied by excited researchers.  Because the puppies apparently were killed by a mudslide and then immediately encapsulated in the oncoming ice, all of their soft tissue — brains, internal organs, fur, and skin — has been preserved, which is exceptionally rare.  Even parasites on the puppies’ bodies were frozen in place and are being studied.  (It makes you wonder how quickly the ice was advancing, doesn’t it?)

Because the puppies were found close to some butchered and burned mammoth bones, suggestive of the presence of early humans, scientists are very curious as to whether the pups were simply part of a wolfpack in the area, or were part of a wolf-like but separate species that already was allied with early humans and later developed into fully domesticated dogs.  The research on the remains of the two puppies will undoubtedly help in the broad ongoing effort to unravel where the modern dog came from.

It’s pretty amazing to see the body of a mammal so perfectly preserved from a time long before the pharoahs and the building of the Sphinx, when mammoths and saber-toothed tigers still roamed the planet.  It makes you wonder what other remains might be locked in the permafrost, waiting to be exposed in the gradual melt.  Could there be a perfectly preserved Neanderthal or one of those mysterious Denisovans who could teach us a lot about the dawn of humans?


Growing Ancient Fruit, Thanks To Our Friends The Squirrels

Scientists in Siberia have discovered and grown ancient fruit — thanks to some Arctic ground squirrels that lived thousands of years before the end of the last Ice Age.

The squirrels had stashed the fruit in their burrows dug deep into the permafrost.  The fruit quickly froze and has remained frozen for 30,000 years.  The squirrel burrows were left undisturbed and were apparently discovered by people looking for the remains of mammoths and other Ice Age creatures.  Scientists took the frozen fruit and, using advanced techniques, have been able to grow plants from the fruit remains — making the fruit, from a plant called Silene Stenophylla, by far the oldest plant material brought back to life after an extended period of dormancy.  The discovery gives scientists hope that they might be able to find, and revive, the frozen remains of extinct Arctic region plants.

Who knows what happened to the squirrels that originally stashed the fruit?  Perhaps they were eaten by a stray saber-tooth tiger or some other Ice Age predator.  But their pack-rat storage habits have allowed scientists to bring an ancient plant back to life — and have given new meaning to the notion of squirreling things away.

Lessons From A Mastodon’s Rib

Scientists have been carefully examining the rib bone of a mastodon, a giant, tusked, elephant-like creature that roamed North America thousands of years ago.  The bone has led them to some interesting conclusions about when humans first came to the Americas, and what they were like.

The mastodon rib bone is unique because it includes an embedded projectile — a spear-point, also made from a mastodon’s bone, that had been sharpened to a needle-like point.  Scientists have applied precise new dating technologies, including radio carbon tests using atomic accelerators, to the bone and have concluded that it dates from 13,800 years ago.  The age of the bone is significant because it predates the point at which the so-called “Clovis hunters” were supposed to have swept across the land bridge from Siberia and spread across the North American continent.  The needle-like spear point in the mastodon’s rib — which uses bone tool techniques much more sophisticated than those purportedly used by the stone tool-wielding “Clovis hunters” — indicates that humans probably arrived thousands of years earlier.

The bone tells us that the early North Americans were capable of fine and effective toolmaking and were fierce and formidable hunters.  Imagine being able to hurl or thrust a bone spear with sufficient force to pierce not only the hide of a mastodon, but also penetrate its rib bone!  But the bone may tell us something more about the bloody-handed history of our race.  It raises the possibility that early humans played a much larger role than was once thought in the mass extinction of the huge creatures that ruled the Earth during the last Ice Age.  Woolly mammoths, mastodons, sabre-toothed cats, giant sloths, and giant birds all went extinct about 13,000 years ago.  The dating of the mastodon’s rib bone increases the sad likelihood that the fierce, bone spear-throwing hunters standing at the dawn of recorded history hunted those long-lost species to their deaths.

Living Near The Terminal Moraine

I was interested in UJ’s recent post that linked to a photo that showed that a particular Canadian glacier has retreated in the 90 years since 1919.  UJ’s question was whether the photographic evidence of the glacier’s retreat was “bothersome.”

Being a lawyer, my answer to that question is (of course!) it depends.  Glaciers advance and retreat as weather conditions change.  We in Ohio should be acutely aware of that fact because the impact of glaciers can be seen all around us.  During the last Ice Age, advancing glaciers gouged out the Great Lakes, covered most of the State, and shoved enormous boulders hundreds of miles to the Terminal Moraine, which geologists place a few miles to the south of Columbus.  If glaciers were immutable, the location where I am typing these words would still be covered by a sheet of ice hundreds of feet thick and would be a likely playground for the woolly Mammoth and his Ice Age animal companions. 

The question is not whether it is good or bad that glaciers grow or shrink, but why that process occurs.  Is it part of the same natural processes — whatever they may be — that has produced the variable weather conditions, like the Ice Age, that have been found throughout the geological record?  Or, is it the result of human activity and greenhouse gas emissions?  The mere fact that temperatures have increased does not mean that a hypothesis about why temperatures have increased is correct.

This is why, in my view, it is so important to have a legitimate, vigorous scientific debate about climate change, complete with testing and experimentation that challenges the currently prevailing global warming hypothesis.  After all, scientists have been known to be wrong.  When was the last time anyone went to a doctor and asked if they had an imbalance of bodily humours?