30,000-year-old fur ball hidden in Canadian permafrost is actually a mummified squirrel

This lump of fur and claws is actually a balled-up mummified squirrel. (Image credit: Government of Yukon)

An unrecognizable ball of fur, claws and limbs that was recently unearthed in Canada is actually a mummified squirrel that likely died while it hibernated around 30,000 years ago, scientists reveal.  

The fur ball was discovered in 2018 by miners at Hester Creek in the Klondike gold fields in Canada's Yukon territory. But scientists recently reevaluated it in preparation for its upcoming public debut at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center (YBIC) in Whitehorse, YBIC representatives wrote in a Facebook post.

The lump is believed to be a curled-up Arctic ground squirrel (Urocitellus parryii). This species, which looks more like modern-day gophers than most squirrels, still exists today and lives in the region where the mummified ball was unearthed. Researchers have nicknamed the squirrel "Hester" after the area where it was found.    

"It's amazing to think that this little guy was running around the Yukon several thousand years ago," YBIC representatives wrote. The "incredible specimen" will soon go on display at the museum, they added.

Related: 'Prehistoric' mummified bear discovered in Siberian permafrost isn't what we thought

A living Arctic ground squirrels (Urocitellus parryii) photographed in Canada's Yukon territory. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

When researchers first found the balled-up squirrel it was not immediately obvious what it was. "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 paleontologist with the Yukon government that led the analysis of the squirrel, told CBC News. When the researchers realized they had found a "perfectly preserved" squirrel they were very excited, he added.

The researchers believe that Hester was most likely hibernating when he died. Living Arctic ground squirrels curl up into balls like Hester to hibernate inside underground dens, which they often line with leafy nests. Researchers have found examples of these preserved nests, but they are almost always empty.   

An X-ray image of the mummified squirrel. (Image credit: Government of Yukon)

The researchers didn’t want to unravel the squirrel from its ball for fear that it may get damaged in the process, so it was X-rayed by local veterinarian Dr. Jess Heath to get a better sense of how well-preserved its insides were. 

Heath had predicted that the squirrel's bones would likely have deteriorated as calcium leaked out over time, which would likely mean the interior of the ball was in poor condition. However, the X-ray scans revealed that the squirrel's skeleton "was in great condition" and the creature appeared almost identical to a living Arctic ground squirrel , CBC News reported.

The Klondike gold fields is a hotspot for mummified animal discoveries. In June 2022, a perfectly preserved baby mammoth that also dates back to around 30,000 years ago was found there. And in 2016, a 57,000-year-old mummified wolf pup was unearthed in the region. 

Harry Baker
Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based staff writer at Live Science. He studied Marine Biology at the University of Exeter (Penryn campus) and after graduating started his own blog site "Marine Madness," which he continues to run with other ocean enthusiasts. He is also interested in evolution, climate change, robots, space exploration, environmental conservation and anything that's been fossilized. When not at work he can be found watching sci-fi films, playing old Pokemon games or running (probably slower than he'd like). 

  • Johnnyreddogg
    Interesting 🤔
  • Hartmann352
    There have been some extremely interesting finds in the permafrost and one, the foot of a Moa, was found in the ice atop Mount Owen in New Zealand. All are amazing finds.

    An “ice age” can be defined as a very long period of time during which Earth’s surface temperatures are extremely low resulting in polar ice sheets and glaciers. So far, Earth has seen four ice ages: the Huronian, Cryogenian, Andean-Saharan, and Karoo Ice Ages. We are currently in the interglacial period of the fifth ice age called the “Quarternary glaciation.” An “interglacial period” is an intermittent warm period between pulses of cold climates called “glacial periods” during an ice age.

    The current interglacial period known as the Holocene (“entirely new” in Greek) started approximately 11,700 years ago. It is during this period that humans and other extant species have evolved. All the permafrost discoveries listed below of mummified ice age megafauna are from the Pleistocene glacial period that lasted from 2.6 million years ago until the beginning of the Holocene.

    The young woolly mammoth named Yuka was uncovered in August 2010 on the Laptev Sea coast near Yukagir, Russia. The specimen is three meters (nine to 10 feet) tall and weighs five tons. It is the only mammoth found so far with a well-preserved brain. The researchers studied its brain using CT and MRI scans and found that its cerebellum, the white and grey matter, and dura matter were intact, though its forebrain was in a less well-preserved condition. The blood vessels and sinuses in the specimen were also visible. The brain was stained brown due to oxidation and has shrunk by 45%. The researchers also found traces of nervous tissue, the main component of the nervous system responsible for transmitting and receiving nerve impulses.

    The four-year-old male bison was discovered in August 2011 by members of Yukagir tribe during their summer activities near Lake Chukchalak in the Yana-Indigirka Lowland of Yakutia, Russia. The bison weighs between 500 and 600 kilograms and has an impressive spread of 75 centimeters between its horn tips. It was found with its brain, heart, blood vessels, genitalia, and digestive system, along with stomach and intestinal contents, intact. Considering the absence of fat around its abdomen and because it was found in a sleeping pose, it is believed the bison died of starvation or had a natural death.

    The woolly rhino was one of the most widespread megafaunas of the Pleistocene period in Eurasia. The frozen mummy was discovered by gold miners under the Kolyma River, Siberia, in June 2007. Even though the rhino was deformed after it was buried, a large portion of it on the left side was intact. Its legs were pushed into the trunk after death, and, unfortunately, its head became detached from the body when it was removed. Most of its internal organs were lost, though the intestines and stomach were preserved. A sample of its stomach content showed very high concentrations of pollen and spores indicating that grasses and sagebrushes were part of its main diet.

    The mummified Pleistocene pony was discovered by drift gold miners in 1968 nine meters under frozen ground. As the horse’s two legs and tail stuck out of the ceiling, the miners used one of its legs to hold their lantern. Unfortunately, the legs were thrown away after a blast broke them off the ceiling. The remaining body was removed using small blasting charges. When the carcass was flown to the Zoological Institute in Leningrad and the experts thawed the body, the abdominal tissue was consumed by enzymes before the horse was frozen.

    Scientists believe that the horse was stuck in a mire as its body was positioned vertically and its forelegs being horizontal. While trying to stay alive, it probably would have kept his head above the mire which might have been torn off or chewed on by a carnivore.

    Uyan and Dina, cave lion cubs, were found in the summer of 2015 in Edoma permafrost deposits formed during the Karginskii interstadial, a warmer period that was present between 25,000 and 55,000 years ago during the current ice age. The cave lions, Panthera spelaea (Goldfuss), lived during the Middle and Late Pleistocene period in the Eurasian continent between 370,000 and 10,000 years ago. CT scans have revealed that the cubs hadn’t formed any teeth yet. Their bodies were so well preserved that their fur, ears, soft tissue, and even their whiskers were intact. During the scan, the researchers also found opaque white fluid in Uyan’s stomach, which they believe could be either their mother’s milk or just gastric fluid.

    An adult male woolly mammoth was discovered in the autumn of 2002 in northern Yakutia, Arctic Siberia. It took the explorers three excavation trips to gather and put the fossil together. The specimen is considered exceptional as its head was very well preserved with complete skin. Upon examining, the researchers found that this woolly mammoth had temporal glands between the ear and the eye. The mammoth also showed signs of spondylitis in two vertebrae. The researchers estimate that the old male stood over nine feet tall when alive and weighed four to five tons.

    The mummified Pleistocene puppy was found in 2015 in the Ust-Yansky district of the Sakha Republic, on the bank of River Syalakh in Siberia. Four years ago, another puppy was found in the same location which was not as well-preserved as this specimen. About 70 to 80% of the Tumat puppy’s brain was preserved, and MRI scans have shown that both the cerebellum and the pituitary gland were visible. The puppies were believed to have died in a landslide and sealed in the permafrost which mummified them.

    The unidentified specimen was discovered by diamond miners in the diamond-yielding sands of Udachny, Minsky district of Yakutia. Researchers are unsure what species the creature belongs to, but one theory suggests that it could be a wolverine or some other carnivorous mammal similar to a small bear. The sands in which the specimen was found date back to the Mesozoic era which could mean it belongs to a time much before the Pleistocene period. It is also believed that the specimen could probably be a modern animal which was mummified in the sands.

    The mummified foot of an upland moa with some muscles and sinew intact was found on January 7, 1987, at Mount Owen, New Zealand. The upland moas are a giant species of flightless birds native to New Zealand. It is around one meter tall and weighs 17 to 34 kilograms. The moa existed between 18.5 million years ago and 1500 CE. They became extinct when the Maori people came to New Zealand from Polynesia. Being flightless and docile because of lack of many predators, the moas became an easy food source for the Maori who hunted them to extinction.

    “Blue Babe” was discovered north of Fairbanks, Alaska, in July 1979. The specimen was coated in vivianite, a blue iron phosphate, giving it a bluish cast. The gold miner who discovered the bison named it “Blue Babe,” after Paul Bunyan’s mythical giant ox which was turned blue when she was buried in a blizzard up to the horns. After its discovery, the researchers who were preparing it for permanent display in the University of Alaska Museum, cut a small piece from its neck, stewed it, and ate it to celebrate their accomplishment.

    See: https://factsc.com/permafrost-discoveries/
    Fascinating discoveries of some of the most immaculately, remarkably preserved prehistoric creatures have been unearthed from permafrost over the past number of decades, providing scientists with a unique window into life as it existed hundreds of thousands of years ago. The permafrost encasing these buried treasures acts as a protective shield around them, ensuring they stay fairly intact over the intervening centuries. It preserves nearly anything within it, including DNA. Permafrost is made of a combination of soil, rocks and sand that are bound together by ice that stays frozen all year long. Most of the remains unearthed had fur, teeth, skin, muscle tissue and organs, like parts of their brain, still intact.