Today, few animals live in the Siberian permafrost. But in the height of the Ice Age, millions of beasts roamed the land. The mightiest of them all included mammoths, rhinos and steppe wolves — an extinct lineage distinct from modern wolves. Four of the world’s leading Ice Age scientists headed to the Yakutia region, situated in the far east of Russia, in search of the ancient beasts.
In summer, temperatures are now warm enough to melt the frozen soil, revealing the mummies of the animals that roamed the region in years gone by.
The permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, had preserved carcasses for some 32,000 years.
The scientists’ discoveries were revealed in the 2020 Discovery documentary ‘Lost Beasts of the Ice Age’.
The documentary’s narrator said a tusk hunter returned to the Belaya Gora base camp with a “mysterious package”, describing it as “something that has never been found before”.
Professor Dan Fisher from the University of Michigan said of the discovery: “There were a lot of specimens that were notable, but one that sticks out is the wolf head.”
The narrator continued: “The wolf looks like it could have died a week ago.
“But it was discovered deep inside the ancient permafrost. That means that it has to be from the Ice Age.”
Prof Fisher continued: “The wolf head was beautifully preserved. Even the little bump to its lip was just there, as it would be in the live animal.”
The head measured two feet including the neck.
The animal’s fur, skin, muscle, teeth, gums and tongue were all still present.
The wolf’s head was in ‘perfect’ condition. (Image: Discovery UK)
It was believed to have been between two and four years old.
Scientists speculated that the wolf could be related to the modern wolf, or the extinct steppe wolf, which is similar to the dire wolf, also extinct.
Dire wolves lived in North America during the Ice Age, and were 25 percent bigger than the modern grey wolf, with the strongest wolf bite known to science.
Once sent off for analysis, which is expected to take at least another year, scientists will be able to establish what type of wolf it is.
If it is a steppe wolf, it will be the only preserved adult head of its kind.
The wolf’s tongue was still there some 32,000 years on. (Image: DISCOVERY UK)
Scientists, however, are baffled by the way it is detached from its head.
Dr Jacquelyn Gill from the University of Maine told Discovery UK: “The break where the vertebrae was was really clean.
“It was as if it had been twisted off. That is not something that you typically see in nature unless you have people processing that corpse.”
Prof Fisher added: “I have never seen a wolf head chopped off.”
The documentary’s narrator said the head could well have been severed by a human, further adding to the evidence that human hunters were in the area.
Steppe wolves were some of the fiercest predators in the world during the Ice Age. (Image: Discovery UK)
Professor Love Dalen, from the Swedish Museum of Natural History, analysed a piece of flesh the size of a fingernail to determine an accurate carbon date.
The carbon dating determined that the head is indeed 32,000 years old, meaning it is “in all likelihood” a steppe wolf.
Prof Dalen did, however, cast doubt over humans cutting the head off. He said he had “seen no evidence convincing” him that this was the case.
Steppe wolves evolved to eat the biggest prey, with larger teeth and a heavier, stronger jaw than modern wolves. They are ancestors of the domestic dog.
The discovery of the wolf head is far from the only prehistoric animal found in the area.
A 42,000-year-old foal has been found, as well as a perfectly preserved lion cub, and an Ice Age moth.
The finds can be attributed both to a rise in mammoth tusk hunting and the increased melting of the permafrost due to global warming.
David Stanton, a researcher at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, told the Smithsonian Magazine earlier this year: “The warming climate means that more and more of these specimens are likely to be found in the future.”
But, he added: “It is also likely that many of [them] will thaw out and decompose (and therefore be lost) before anyone can find and study them.”