When the Yukagir tribe in northern Siberia found the remains of a steppe bison, the extinct predecessor to the modern bison roaming the plains of northern Europe and North America, it was a remarkable discovery because the bison was well-preserved, mummified with all of its body parts intact.
Now, details of the Yukagir bison mummy's necropsy are out, presented at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Berlin.
Many steppe bison remains have been uncovered in the past, but it is rare for a carcass to remain intact for thousands of years and still have all its organs. Normally, bison mummies discovered have already been badly damaged by predators, feasted upon as soon as they thaw out of the permafrost.
No obvious cause of death was determined, but because the Yukagir bison mummy was lacking fat in the abdominal area, it was assumed that the animal starved to death.
"The exclusively good preservation of the Yukagir bison mummy allows direct anatomical comparisons with modern species of Bison and cattle, as well as with extinct species of bison that were gone at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary," said Dr. Evgeny Maschenko of the Paleontological Institute in Moscow.
There are few records of species alive at the start of the Holocene epoch but the Yukagir bison mummy provides researchers with the opportunity to explore the morphology and genetics of the animal, thanks to its well-preserved organ.
Though some have shrunk, all of the organs of the Yukagir bison mummy were in good condition, allowing researchers to get samples of tissues from each one. As for the brain, the first found from a steppe bison intact, it was removed to facilitate further study. Preliminary histology is still being carried out.
There was also particular interest in the ancient parasites that once thrived on the bison. While DNA from the steppe bison was not preserved, liver, intestine, and lung tissues were used to detect mitochondrial DNA from the parasites. Researchers can then use this mitochondrial DNA to determine how long ago the animal lived exactly. At the moment, estimates have the Yukagir bison mummy alive 9,300 years ago.
Olga Potapova, Mammoth Site of Hot Springs manager in South Dakota who was also involved in the study of the Yukagir bison mummy, said that learning about the steppe bison's genetics, physiology, and anatomy provides researchers with a wealth of information that will let them reconstruct the bison's lifestyle, behavior, and habitat. And all that information may hold the key towards unlocking the real reasons why the steppe bison went extinct.