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This Bird Froze 46,000 Years Ago. Now, It Can Tell Scientists About the Last Ice Age

A likely ancestor of today’s horned larks, the specimen was preserved in pristine condition by permafrost

This remarkably well-preserved horned lark died toward the end of the last ice age (Dussex et al., Communications Biology, 2020)
smithsonianmag.com

Around the tail end of the last ice age, a female horned lark flitted into a frosty cave and met a tragic end. Now, more than 45,000 years later, researchers studying its remarkable permafrost-preserved carcass are getting a rare glimpse into the ancient ecosystems that once speckled Siberia.

“It’s like entering a walk-in freezer and finding a thing that’s been stored for 45,000 years,” Nicolas Dussex, a zoologist at Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History, tells Ryan F. Mandelbaum at Gizmodo. Dussex and his colleagues describe their findings in a paper published this month in the journal Communications Biology.

A group of fossil ivory hunters, who are legally permitted to excavate tunnels near the village of Belaya Gora in northeastern Siberia, found the frozen bird trapped several feet underground. In 2018, they contacted study author Jacquelyn Gill, a climate scientist at the University of Maine who had previously been involved in permafrost discoveries in the area. But the lark’s pristine state made it appear as though it had died very recently, causing Gill to dismiss it as a modern find at first, Gizmodo reports.

The fossil hunters insisted that the bird was in fact ancient, so Gill teamed up with colleagues to more analyze the specimen and pinpoint its origins. Radiocarbon dating revealed its true age, while a genetic analysis confirmed it as a horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). Horned larks are still alive today in the form of two subspecies found in open, airy habitats across the Northern hemisphere.

The Siberian specimen may have a direct ancestor of both modern horned larks, as study author Love Dalén, an evolutionary geneticist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, tells Jack Guy at CNN. If that’s the case, the speciation split could have happened around the time the ice age concluded, when changing climates divided northern Europe and Asia into three distinct ecosystems—tundra in the north, steppe in the south and taiga (coniferous forests) sandwiched in between. At the same time, species like the woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses were driven to extinction, reports Marisa Iati at the Washington Post.

Nevertheless, horned larks persisted. Mapping the entire genome of this specimen and comparing it to those in modern birds could help researchers figure out why, Gill tells Gizmodo. As Dussex explains in a statement, these larks didn’t just weather the perils of a changing world: They managed to take the opportunity to diversify.

“The fact that [the species] survived the challenges of climate change commands a lot of respect,” Gill tells Gizmodo.

The horned lark is far from the only animal to emerge from permafrost revealing exciting scientific finds. Other ancient animals have been recovered from the same Siberian site. In 2018, an 18,000-year-old puppy named Dogor that could be the oldest dog ever found—though it may just be an ancient wolf. Researchers have also found a 50,000-year-old cave lion cub, 42,000-year-old foal, a 32,000-year-old steppe wolf, a 34,000-year-old woolly rhino, and a 9,000-year-old bison.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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