Researchers have uncovered what they believe was the unusual last meal of a prehistoric pup that lived 14,000 years ago.
Following a reanalysis of the mummified canine, the team found preserved remains of a woolly rhinoceros hiding in its stomach – complete with the animal’s yellow fur.
The ancient pup appeared to have been frozen in time, as its fur, heart, lungs, teeth and stomach were all intact when it was first unearthed in 2011.
Scientists named the three-month-old dog Tumat, after the village where it was discovered in the Sakha Republic of Russia and believe it died in a landslide during the late Ice Age.
The incredibly well preserved remains of a 14,000 year old puppy were discovered in Siberia in 2011. The dog, a three-month-old female researchers named Tumat, still had its fur, heart, lungs, teeth and stomach intact
The chilly Siberian atmosphere helped preserve both specimens, ‘essentially like a giant freezer, keeping things cold for thousands of years,’ researcher Edana Lord of the Center for Paleogenetics told Inverse.
‘When an animal is buried quickly after it dies — for example, if it falls down a crevice — it can become mummified, she continued.’
While plant remains have been found in prehistoric digestive systems before, ‘it’s very unusual to find tissue from another animal preserved in the stomach,’ Lord said.
Initially, researchers believed the sample came from a cave lion, a large cat that went extinct about 13,000 years ago.
Inside Tumat’s stomach, scientists found the remains of another animal. While plant matter can show up in digestive tracts, ‘it’s very unusual to find tissue from another animal,’ said Edana Lord of the Center for Paleogenetics
But using DNA sequencing, they were able to determine the prehistoric snack was actually a woolly rhinoceros.
Their findings were published this month in a report in Current Biology.
The discovery could yield an abundance of information about prehistoric dogs’ behavior, diet and evolutionary history.
For example, it’s unlikely a puppy was able to take down a rhino by itself.
Lord theorizes it may have been part of a pack that took down a rhino or it’s possible the pup had ingratiated itself among early human hunters.
Edana Lord sampling woolly rhinoceros DNA in a lab. Her team initially believed the remains were from a cave lion. But using DNA sequencing, they were able to determine the prehistoric morsel was actually a woolly rhinoceros
Previous research suggests dogs may have been domesticated as far back as 32,000 years ago, according to Nature.
‘It certainly is very interesting to speculate,’ said Lord.
Having well preserved fur and tissue samples from both the predator and its prey makes DNA analysis easier, Lord added, ‘so we can get more genetic information from them and even sequence their entire genomes.’
An image of the reconstructed remains of a baby woolly rhinoceros discovered in Siberia. It’s unlikely Tumat would have been able to take down a rhino herself, but she could have hunted with a pack or been the ‘pet’ of early humans
The same report determined that the woolly rhino was ultimately killed off by climate change, not overhunting by humans, as previously thought.
Once common across Europe and northern Asia, the woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) disappeared some 14,000 or 15,000 years ago.
Initially, the arrival of humans in the region had been dated to about the same time. Images of the woolly rhino have been found in cave paintings in Europe and Asia.
Paleontologists speculated overhunting caused the rhino and other Pleistocene creatures, like the woolly mammoth, to go extinct.
But the recent discovery of older human habitats in Siberia, some dating back 30,000 years ago, meant their extinction doesn’t line up with humans coming on the scene.
Human hunters were not responsible for killing off the woolly rhino, according to the new study, published this month in Current Biology. Instead, scientists say, climate change was to blame
Analyzing genomes from more than a dozen different rhinos, Lord and her team found that their population remained ‘stable and diverse’ until only a few millennia before they disappeared.
‘If anything, we actually see something looking a bit like an increase in population size during this period.’ said lead author Love Dalén, an evolutionary geneticist with the Swedish Natural History Museum.
Dalén said the species, well adapted to Siberia’s frigid weather, just couldn’t cope with rising temperatures during a brief warming period known as the Bølling-Allerød interstadial.
‘We’re coming away from the idea of humans taking over everything as soon as they come into an environment, and instead elucidating the role of climate,’ Lord added.
‘Although we can’t rule out human involvement, we suggest that the woolly rhinoceros’ extinction was more likely related to climate.’