About half an hour before his lunch break one morning in June, Travis Mudry was driving an excavator and digging through permafrost in the Klondike Goldfields in the Yukon in Canada.
He was scratching a frozen wall of earth. Suddenly a big chunk came out. With him was the body of a baby woolly mammoth, frozen and preserved with its hair and skin.
“I thought it was a baby buffalo at first,” said Mudry, 31, from Alberta. “And then I came out, and I was inspecting it, and there was a trunk, so I had no words.”
The mammoth was dark and shiny, Mr. Mudry said, with short legs and deep, pronounced eye sockets. It had a lean, wrinkled trunk and a stub of tail. He quickly waved to a colleague and called his boss, Brian McCaughan, the co-founder of a family-owned gold mining business called Treadstone Equipment.
“He is in front of us, glistening in the sun, as if he had just died,” Mr McCaughan, 57, said of the discovery made on June 21. “It was crazy.”
He compared its size to that of a white-tailed deer. Mr McCaughan said digging up bones, even of mammoths, was commonplace during mining, but the discovery was something incomparable. “It’s like we’re being rewarded by Mother Earth when you pull something like that out of the ground,” he said.
Experts believe the mammoth was just over a month old when it perished in the mud. It was then captured in time, locked in the frozen layer of soil known as permafrost, during the ice age more than 30,000 years ago, said Grant Zazula, a paleontologist with the Yukon government.
To be so well preserved, the mammoth had to be buried under the mud very quickly, said Mr Zazula, calling the circumstances “nothing short of a miracle”.
He said the baby mammoth measured about 140 centimeters from the base of its tail to the base of its trunk, or just over four and a half feet.
Although his body was split in two, possibly by the excavator or by natural forces over time, he said he was “complete from tip to tail”.
He said it may be the best-preserved specimen found in North America and may even surpass Lyuba, a female woolly mammoth found in Siberia in 2017 nearly intact but without a tail.
Woolly mammoths, ancestors of modern elephants, once crossed the northern hemisphere. They disappeared about 10,000 years ago due to overhunting and climate change.
Mammoths were abundant in Yukon’s ancient past, said University of Cincinnati paleontologist and professor Joshua H. Miller.
Today, the territory has a “magnificent” fossil record of prehistoric animals, including steppe bison, ancient cats and short-faced bears, Miller said, adding that mining has contributed to the wealth of discoveries. But most were bones, not mummies.
The finding is important for research, Miller said. Experts can gain a better understanding of the mammoth’s anatomy and environment, and even the conditions that led to its long preservation.
There is also deep meaning for the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin people, the Yukon First Nation on whose territory the mammoth died, Zazula said. He believes it is a healing opportunity for the nation, which has experienced a century of conflict with gold rush prospectors.
The Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin elders named the mammoth Nun cho ga, “big baby animal” in the Hän language, according to a press release issued last week.
Roberta Joseph, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief, said in a statement that the First Nation looks forward to working with the Yukon government “on the next steps in the process to move forward with these remains in a way that honors our traditions, culture and laws.
For now, Nun cho ga is in a freezer in the Yukon, several hours from the mine where he was found, awaiting further analysis. While the mammoth’s study will reveal “incredible details” about the ancient past, even what its last meal was, there was no rush, Mr Zazula said.
Together, the First Nation, Yukon government, scientists and miners are embarking on a journey of cultural and scientific discovery, he said.
“This woolly mammoth is really a symbol of it all together, and how to move forward in a good way,” he said.