Miners say discovery of baby woolly mammoth in Yukon is biggest life event so far

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WHITEHORSE – Travis Delawski went looking for gold but found something even more valuable.

The Treadstone Gold miner climbed into his excavator on June 21 just before lunch and headed down the river into the Yukon’s Klondike fields where he began scraping the black earth.

“I put the ripper in the wall, took it out and looked down,” he said during a Wednesday briefing. “And there, something was looking at me.”

He jumped out of his machine to take a closer look while calling his supervisor, Brian McCaughan, on the radio to report that he had “found a body”, he said.

At first Delawski said he thought it was a buffalo.

“But then I came down and looked closer and there was a chest. And then as soon as it happened I was like, ‘Brian, that’s a baby woolly mammoth.’

The Yukon government said the animal was found on Tr’ondek Hwech’in traditional territory and is the most complete and best-preserved mammoth in North America.

Tr’ondek Hwech’in elders named the mammoth Nun cho ga, which means “big baby animal” in the country’s Han language.

Georgette McLeod, the Han language administrator for the nation, said the elders needed to find a way to note the importance of the animal, not just as a living thing but also as a baby.

“The history of the Han language goes back quite a long time, but there is no name for a mammoth because it does not exist in the Han language,” she said.

“We wanted to make sure it had a name related to the baby, but that also means it’s a very large animal that has roamed these lands for a number of years.”

Brian Groves, senior heritage manager for the Yukon, said preliminary examinations show Nun cho ga was female and was between 30 and 35 days old when she died.

It was frozen into permafrost about 30,000 years ago.

The animal is about 140 centimeters long and has well-preserved hair, trunk and tiny fingernails that have not been hardened.

McCaughan, owner of Treadstone Gold, said when he went to see the animal he expected to see “broken bones”, which are commonly found in the area.

“I walked over to look at the bones and there was fresh skin and hair and it looked like he had died a week ago,” he said with a laugh.

The importance of the discovery to him sinks a little every day, even nearly a month after its discovery, he said.

“What an incredible discovery,” he said, shaking his head.

There was a thunderstorm late in the day with lightning “falling around us” and “rain falling from the side”, he recalled.

“It was an experience that just grew inside you and every day you got emotional about it because you connected.”

There’s something in everyone’s life that stands out, and McCaughan said the day he saw Nun cho ga was his.

“It’s absolutely my No. 1 in the rest of my life,” he said.

Jeff Bond, director of the Yukon Geological Survey, said Nun cho ga likely died near a small stream coming out of the side hill into Eureka Creek.

“It was then buried probably by a mudslide that came down during a storm,” he said. “Probably a bit like the storm event we had on June 21 when we picked it up. That in itself is quite significant in my mind.

The men put Nun cho ga in an excavator bucket after she was found and covered her with tarpaulins and blankets to keep the body cool.

Woolly mammoths crossed the northern hemisphere but became extinct about 10,000 years ago due to warming temperatures and overhunting.

Ross McPhee, senior curator in the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History, said the animal may offer insight into the developmental rate of infant mammoths since the only information they have comes from elephants, their distant relatives.

Because the mammoths lived at a high latitude, life would have been far more dangerous than being in the tropics, he said.

“So what kinds of adaptations did woolly mammals have for their babies, so that they were able to mature perhaps faster than elephants today.”

Until a plan can be worked out on next steps, Groves said Nun cho ga will remain in a freezer, several miles from where she was found.

“At this point, Nun cho ga has been frozen for over 30,000 years and is stored under stable conditions,” he said. “And really, we’re in no rush to figure out what the next steps are with respect to research or conservation activities.”

— By Hina Alam in Vancouver

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 13, 2022.

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