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A pup preserved in permafrost ate one of the last woolly rhinos on Earth

The ice age pup's well-preserved teeth are still sharp.
The ice age pup's well-preserved teeth are still sharp.
(Image: © Sergej Fedorov)

Just before a tiny pup died during the last ice age, it ate a piece of meat from one of Earth's last  woolly rhinos. 

Researchers made this discovery while doing a necropsy (an animal autopsy) on the mummified remains of the ice age puppy. After finding an undigested slab of skin with yellow fur in the puppy's stomach, researchers initially thought the puppy had chewed off a hunk of cave lion meat for its last meal. 

But a DNA analysis of the slab revealed that it wasn't a cave lion (Panthera spelaea), but a woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), which went extinct around 14,000 years ago, right about the time that this pup had its last meal.

Related: Photos: Is ice age cat mummy a lion or a lynx? 

That means this puppy ate one of the last woolly rhinos to ever exist, said Edana Lord, a doctoral student at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Sweden, a joint venture between Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Lord co-authored a study published Aug. 13 in the journal Current Biology on the extinction of the woolly rhinos.

The mummified puppy was discovered in Tumat, a rural locality in northeastern Siberia, in 2011. An analysis revealed that the puppy was likely between 3 and 9 months old when it died, but it's unclear whether the pup was a dog or a wolf, Lord noted, a mystery that also surrounds an 18,000-year-old puppy found in Siberia in 2018, Live Science previously reported

"I think it falls around that critical point for the dog/wolf domestication," she told Live Science, adding that a research team in Copenhagen is trying to decipher whether the Tumat pup was domesticated or not. 

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The Siberian permafrost preserved the puppy mummy since the last ice age.

The Siberian permafrost has preserved the puppy's mummy since the last ice age. (Image credit: Sergej Fedorov)
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The pup's furry feet and tail

The pup's furry feet and tail (Image credit: Sergej Fedorov)
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It's still unclear whether the puppy was a dog or a wolf.

It's still unclear whether the puppy was a dog or a wolf. (Image credit: Sergej Fedorov)
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Researchers did a necropsy (an animal autopsy) on the puppy.

Researchers did a necropsy (an animal autopsy) on the puppy. (Image credit: Sergej Fedorov)
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The roughly 14,000-year-old puppy mummy.

The roughly 14,000-year-old puppy mummy. (Image credit: Sergej Fedorov)
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The piece of woolly rhino skin and fur that researchers found in the puppy's stomach.

The piece of woolly rhino skin and fur that researchers found in the puppy's stomach. (Image credit: Love Dalén)
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The roughly 14,000-year-old puppy mummy.

The roughly 14,000-year-old puppy mummy. (Image credit: Sergej Fedorov)
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A woolly rhino skeleton

A woolly rhino skeleton (Image credit: Fedor Shidlovskiy)
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The reconstructed remains of a baby woolly rhinoceros, named Sasha, who lived in what is now Siberia.

The reconstructed remains of a baby woolly rhinoceros, named Sasha, who lived in what is now Siberia. (Image credit: Albert Protopopov)

Radiocarbon dating revealed that the Tumat puppy lived about 14,000 years ago. Researchers also radiocarbon dated the woolly rhino slab, to rule out the possibility that the rhino hadn't died earlier and been preserved in Siberia's permafrost, only to be discovered by the puppy at a later date. It's possible "that this puppy may have been one of a scavenging pack, and that the wolves either took down the rhino, or were looking for food and came across a rhino carcass," Lord noted. 

If the puppy was domesticated, it's possible that it was living with humans, who may have shared the rhino meal with the pup, she said. Soon after the puppy ate the woolly rhino, it died, although it's anyone's guess how. The researchers were able to rule out one scenario, though; "It doesn't look like it's been squashed," before it was preserved as a mummy in the cold permafrost, Lord said.

Despite this "rhino dinner," predators probably didn't cause the extinction of the woolly rhino, according to Lord's new research. Instead, the culprit was the rapidly warming climate at the end of the last ice age, she and her colleagues found. When the team sequenced a woolly rhinoceros nuclear genome and 14 mitochondrial genomes (DNA passed down the maternal line) — including the specimen found in the pup's belly — they found that the woolly rhino population was stable and diverse up until a few thousands years before the herbivores went extinct. This genetic diversity indicates that there wasn't inbreeding, a problem that plagued the dwarf woolly mammoths on Wrangel Island off the northern coast of Russia about 4,000 years ago. 

Because of the genetic diversity, as well as "the association of the extinction with the Bølling-Allerød interstadial, a very abrupt warming period [about 14,700 to 12,900 years ago], we suggest that the woolly rhinoceros went extinct due to climate change," Lord said.

The DNA analyses also revealed that the woolly rhinoceros had genetic mutations that helped it adapt to cold weather. One such mutation made the woolly creature less sensitive to feeling the cold, "which means that they would have been able to survive better in the more extreme cold," Lord said. "Because of these genomic adaptations to Arctic climate, they probably weren't well adapted to deal with the warming climate."

Moreover, the the rhinos were accustomed to foraging in the dry grasslands, but the warming climate during the Bølling-Allerød interstadial changed their environment to a snowy, "wooded shrubby habitat," which didn't provide the "favorite food of the rhinos," Lord said. 

Puppies, on the other hand, will eat nearly anything, from woolly rhinos to shoes, which might explain their adaptability.

Originally published on Live Science.

  • bobbobwhite
    Animals such as the rhino or mammoth didn't have any defense against an armed attack by many humans. Almost all of the animals that have gone extinct since the rise of the human have been extirpated by humans, regardless of what excuse-making "science" says. Humans always excuse their worst behavior, and uncaring species destruction is among the worst.
    Reply
  • Lynnie
    bobbobwhite said:
    Animals such as the rhino or mammoth didn't have any defense against an armed attack by many humans. Almost all of the animals that have gone extinct since the rise of the human have been extirpated by humans, regardless of what excuse-making "science" says. Humans always excuse their worst behavior, and uncaring species destruction is among the worst.
    Humans have disappointed me for a long time now. Sad species. Seem quite devoid of intelligence that other species seem to have. Very grosse creatures fronting as intelligent beings.😥
    Reply
  • TorbjornLarsson
    bobbobwhite said:
    Almost all of the animals that have gone extinct since the rise of the human have been extirpated by humans, regardless of what excuse-making "science" says.

    Science doesn't work to produce excuses, it works to produce facts.

    That the facts doesn't suit your personal opinion ir your problem, not one else's. And it has nothing to do with science anymore than gravity is your personal affront.
    Reply
  • TorbjornLarsson
    Lynnie said:
    Humans have disappointed me for a long time now. Sad species. Seem quite devoid of intelligence that other species seem to have. Very grosse creatures fronting as intelligent beings.😥

    We are measurably intelligent by the way we measure "intelligence", whether or not you like that. And by evolutionary measures of success, while we still are an order of magnitude less diverse than other apes (chimps) due to earlier bottlenecks, we have managed to increase our population by 6 order of magnitude, or a million times larger population than the original 10,000 breeding pairs bottleneck.

    Sad trolls comments, seem quite devoid of intelligence.
    Reply
  • The Remster
    Lynnie said:
    Humans have disappointed me for a long time now. Sad species. Seem quite devoid of intelligence that other species seem to have. Very grosse creatures fronting as intelligent beings.😥
    It is a good thing that most of these animals went extinct because they are very strong so if some of the animals were still alive it could possibly take over the human race. and you spelled gross wrong
    Reply