Stunning photos show 44,000-year-old mummified wolf discovered in Siberian permafrost

Wolf laying on table surround by 4 people wearing white coats and gloves.
The mummified wolf was discovered in the Siberian permafrost in 2021. (Image credit: North-Eastern Federal University)

In a first-of-its-kind discovery, a complete mummified wolf was pulled from the permafrost in Siberia, after being locked away for more than 44,000 years. Scientists have now completed a necropsy (an animal autopsy) on the ancient predator, which was discovered by a river in the Republic of Sakha — also known as Yakutia — in 2021. 

This is the first complete adult wolf dating to the late Pleistocene (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago) ever discovered, according to a translated statement from the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, where the necropsy was performed. The discovery, scientists say, will help us better understand life in the region during the last ice age.

Photos from the necropsy show the wolf's mummified body in exquisite detail. Animals are preserved in permafrost through a type of mummification involving cold and dry conditions. Soft tissues are dehydrated, allowing the body to be preserved in a frozen time capsule.

Researchers took samples of the wolf's internal organs and gastrointestinal tract to detect ancient viruses and microbiota, and to understand its diet when it died. 

Related: Mummified mystery pup that died 18,000 years ago was a wolf

"His stomach has been preserved in an isolated form, there are no contaminants, so the task is not trivial," Albert Protopopov, head of the department for the study of mammoth fauna of the Academy of Sciences of Yakutia, said in the statement. "We hope to obtain a snapshot of the biota of the ancient Pleistocene."

Researchers took samples from the wolf's stomach and digestive tract.  (Image credit: North-Eastern Federal University)

He added the wolf, which tooth analysis revealed was male, would've been an "active and large predator," so they will be able to find out what it was eating, along with the diet of its victims, which "also ended up in his stomach." 

Another key aspect of the necropsy is looking at the ancient viruses the wolf may have harbored. "We see that in the finds of fossil animals, living bacteria can survive for thousands of years, which are a kind of witnesses of those ancient times," Artemy Goncharov, who studies ancient viruses at the North-Western State Medical University in Russia, and is part of the team analyzing the wolf, said in the statement. 

Tooth analysis revealed the wolf was an adult male.  (Image credit: North-Eastern Federal University)

He said the research project will aid their understanding of ancient microbial communities and the role of harmful bacteria during this period. "It is possible that microorganisms will be discovered that can be used in medicine and biotechnology as promising producers of biologically active substances," he added. 

The wolf necropsy is part of an ongoing project to study the wildlife that lived in the region during the Pleistocene. Other species examined include ancient hares, horses and a bear from the Holocene. The team plans to study the wolf's genome to understand how it relates to other ancient wolves from the region, and how it compares to its living relatives. The team now plans to start studying another ancient wolf discovered in the Nizhnekolymsk region of northeast Siberia in 2023. 

The wolf necropsy is part of a larger project to understand the ancient fauna from Siberia.  (Image credit: North-Eastern Federal University)

Researchers examined the preserved organs of the wolf during the necropsy.  (Image credit: North-Eastern Federal University)

The researchers hope to learn how this wolf is related to its modern-day relatives.  (Image credit: North-Eastern Federal University)

Researchers will examine the samples taken for viruses.  (Image credit: North-Eastern Federal University)
Hannah Osborne

Hannah Osborne is the planet Earth and animals editor at Live Science. Prior to Live Science, she worked for several years at Newsweek as the science editor. Before this she was science editor at International Business Times U.K. Hannah holds a master's in journalism from Goldsmith's, University of London.