Last year, a tuck hunter in Siberia’s Yakutia region made an amazing find while walking the shores of the Tirekhtyak River. The hunter stumbled upon a fully preserved prehistoric wold head covered in Siberian permafrost while looking for mammoth husks. Aside from just discovering an ancient species, this find speaks to an even bigger problem regarding the thawing of the earth’s frost. When permafrost is thawed, while it could be releasing ancient species, it could also be thawing diseases and dangerous levels of carbon. Read on to learn more about this wolf and how climate change may be unearthing more of these previously frozen treasures.

The find

While searching for mammoth tusks in Siberia’s Yakutia region, a hunter discovered a fully preserved wolf head covered in permafrost. The severed head is over 32,000 years old. The specimen is part of the Pleistocene steppe wolf family which is an extinct relative of the modern wolf. This discovery could tell researchers more about how they became extinct, how they are related to modern-day wolves and more about permafrost preservation.

How are these wolves different?

If you’re picturing a giant prehistoric wolf the size of a dinosaur, you might be letting your imagination get the best of you. This prehistoric wolf is actually not much larger than a wolf you’d find today. The ancient wolf’s head that was discovered is estimated to be 15.7 inches long and the modern day wolf head measures around 9.1-11 inches long. Scientists are hoping to be able to extract DNA from the wolf’s head because of the state of preservation. The DNA could be able to tell whether the ancient wolves mated with modern wolves and how inbred the older species was. The DNA could also show if there were any genetic adaptations that contributed to its eventual extinction.

Siberian permafrost

Siberian permafrost is commonly found in the Siberia’s Yakutia region. This natural phenomenon is known for its nearly perfect preservation abilities. In regards to the severed wolf head, scientists speculate a couple of different theories. One is that humans severed the wolf’s head for a number of reasons. Another theory as to why the head may have been the only body part preserved is because of the frost. Due to the freezing of the wolf’s body and how it was laying over time, the body may have been covered and uncovered by snow and permafrost. The head could have been the only part that was left preserved.

Permafrost covers nearly 25% of the Northern Hemisphere. For thousands of years, the ground has been a frozen combination of soil, rock, and ice. This has been mixed with parts of organisms preserved in a deep freeze. According to Discover Magazine, global warming has accounted for millions of decayed pieces of organic matter being thawed across these regions. This is releasing dangerous levels of carbon and deadly diseases such as anthrax into the environment. When a carcass is thawed, any diseases it contains may be thawed along with it. The worst could be yet to come.

According to scientists organic matter trapped in permafrost from mammoth carcasses to ancient fruit could contain huge amounts of carbon. There is an estimated 1,500 billion tons of carbon predicted to be in these specimen. That is almost twice the carbon currently in our atmosphere. As the earth and ground warm up, the frozen material will start to decay. This will release the carbon as greenhouse gases. The effects of the thawing of permafrost remain to be seen. Human decisions regarding global warming and climate change will play a major role in how this effects more prehistoric finds like the wolf.