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Amazingly Well-Preserved Ice Age Horse Discovered in Siberian Permafrost

Nancy Bilyeau
Photo by Michil Yakoklev/North-Eastern Federal University
Photo by Michil Yakoklev/North-Eastern Federal University

The perfectly preserved remains of a 40,000-year-old foal were discovered by a Japanese-Russian team of scientists who were searching the melting permafrost of Siberia for evidence of the lives of ancient woolly mammoths.

The mummified foal, about 37 inches tall, was so well-preserved by icy conditions that the skin, the tail, the hooves, and even the hairs in the animal’s nostrils and around its hooves are still visible.

“The foal has no damage to its carcass, even its hair is preserved, which is incredibly rare for such ancient finds,” said Semyon Grigoryev, head of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, at a media conference held on August 24, 2018, in Yakutsk, called the coldest city in the world. In this Eastern Siberian city, the average high in January plunges to minus 40.

The foal was about two months old when it died between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. Photo by Michil Yakoklev/North-Eastern Federal University

The foal was about two months old when it died between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. Photo by Michil Yakoklev/North-Eastern Federal University

“I want to stress that this is the foal of a type of horse that populated Yakutia between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago,” said Grigoryev. “This was called the Lenskaya, or Lena Horse (Equus lenensis), genetically different from those living in Yakutia now.”

The modern-day Yakut horse is the hardiest in the world, capable of surviving temperatures of minus 40.

Deputy Head of the North-Eastern Federal University, Grigory Savvinov, told the Siberian Times that the best theory is the foal fell into a natural trap and drowned.

The fossilized specimen was only two or three months old when it perished back in the Upper Paleolithic, or Late Stone Age.

“We’ll study content of its bowel to understand the foal’s diet,” says Grigoryev.

Even its hair preserved. Photo by Michil Yakoklev/North-Eastern Federal University

Even its hair preserved. Photo by Michil Yakoklev/North-Eastern Federal University

It was found during an expedition to the Verkhoyansky district of Yakutia and was dug from its grave some 100 feet beneath the original surface of the depression.

The discovery was made by a team working inside the Batagai depression, a huge thermokarst crater nicknamed “the Mouth of Hell.” Locals in the Yakutia region see this crater as superstitious, and regard it as the gateway to the underworld.

IFL Science reports that aside from the horse, “The mummified remains of a potential new species of pygmy mammoth were unearthed – incredible in itself – before the story took an unexpected turn when a polar bear showed up and made off with the 50,000-year-old leg for breakfast. Before that, the incredibly preserved 50,000-year-old remains of a cave lion cub were found, and before that it was a fabulously fluffy strawberry blond baby woolly rhino.”

The gash in the tundra was reportedly caused by clearing of forests during the Soviet era. This allowed the ground to warm during the summer months enough to trigger thawing of the permafrost. The crater it is now being enlarged and shaped by climate change, according to local scientists.

It is of particular interest to paleontologists who estimate that 200,000 years of climatic history could be revealed, according to a study titled ‘Preliminary paleoenvironmental analysis of permafrost deposits at Batagaika megaslump, Yana Uplands, northeast Siberia’ published in Quaternary Research in March 2017. The rapid rate of growth of the Batagai depression and other similar craters is seen as a cause for concern by climate scientists.

The mummified horse was found inside the Batagai depression in the Siberian region of Yakutia. Photo by Michil Yakoklev/North-Eastern Federal University

The mummified horse was found inside the Batagai depression in the Siberian region of Yakutia. Photo by Michil Yakoklev/North-Eastern Federal University

“Chunks of thawing permafrost fall off the cliffs, up to 330 feet high, causing a booming sound which adds to the fears of nomadic groups in this icy outpost,” reports The Express.

Sergey Fyodorov, a researcher at the Institute of Applied Ecology, Yakutsk, said: “One of the most serious things we must understand looking at this slump is that its growth is not something we, humans, can stop.” One of the main worrying consequences of thawing permafrost is the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

The researcher continued in the interview: “We cannot put a curtain against sun rays to stop it from thawing. Even at the beginning of September, when air temperatures drop to zero, you see springs and rivers of water. As you stand inside the slump on soft piles of soil that was left after ice thawed, you hear it ‘talking to you,’ with the cracking sound of ice and a non-stop monotonous gurgling of little springs and rivers of water.”

He said it was fortunate this happened in a remote area away from a more populated settlement.

Read another story from us: Bronze Age Fashion – The “Egtved Girl” Showed Remarkably Modern Taste

Fyodorov warned: “It’s time for the world to wake up and pay more attention to what is happening with thawing permafrost here in Yakutia.”


Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.