Over the years, archaeologists have uncovered many remarkable ancient specimens, including body parts and carcasses of animals such as mammoths, wooly rhinos, and wolves from the Siberian permafrost.

This time, however, they found the mummified remains of a whole bird — with its talons and feathers unscathed forty-six thousand (46,000) years after her death.

An intact 46,000-year-old bird was found for the first time in the Siberian permafrost.

The prehistoric 46,000-year-old bird was identified by scientists studying the remarkably nearly-intact carcasses of the Ice Age bird as a horned lark (Eremophila alpestris), and scientists believe it could be a predecessor to two subspecies alive today; one in northern Russia and the other on the Mongolian steppe.

Eremophila alpestris is popularly known in Europe as the shore lark, is a songbird that is small in size and breeds across the northern hemisphere.

It has 42 officially identified subspecies that are grouped into six different clades. Each of these clades could as well be reclassification into distinct species clusters. 

This discovery is the first of its kind; no nearly-intact bird specimen had ever been dug up in the tundra.

Love Dalén from the Swedish Museum of Natural History, who is an expert in evolutionary genetics and was part of the research team that examined the ancient bird, believe that climatic changes that led to the end of the last Ice Age led to the formation of new subspecies of this bird. He said:

“This finding implies that the climatic changes that took place at the end of the last Ice Age led to the formation of new subspecies,”

The bird was found frozen and buried 23 feet below ground in permafrost in North-Eastern Siberia, near the village of Belaya Gora.

The prehistoric 46,000-year-old bird was discovered by local fossil ivory hunters, who then gave this specimen to a team of experts, including Love Dalén and Nicolas Dussex, for further analysis.

Genome Maps Of Historic DNA Might Also Shed Light On Evolution Of Subspecies

To understand how this Ice Age bird is related to present-day horned larks, the researchers from the Center for Palaeogenetics extracted ancient DNA from the specimen and analyzed it.

Nicolas Dussex, a researcher at Stockholm University who specializes in conservation genomics and avian evolution, observed that the Pleistocene bird is indeed an ancestor of the present-day subspecies. He said:

The genetic analysis suggests that the bird belonged to a population that was a joint ancestor of two subspecies of horned lark living today, one in Siberia, and one in the steppe in Mongolia.”

Nicolas’ co-author and professor of evolutionary genetics at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Love Dalén, also backed these claims.

“Our results support this theory since the diversification of the horned lark into these subspecies seems to have happened about at the same time as the mammoth steppe disappeared.”

During the last Ice Age, the mammoth steppe was the Earth’s largest ecosystem. It covered a sizeable part of the northern portion of the planet.

The mammoth steppe featured a cold, dry climate that favored high-productivity grasses, willow shrubs, and herbs, and was occupied by horses and long-horned bison  — and was the natural habitat for woolly rhinoceros, woolly mammoths and cave lions. Unfortunately, all of these animals have since gone into extinction.

This habitat existed for almost a hundred thousand years before the thawing climate suddenly made it nearly extinct about 11,700 years ago.

As a result, specimens found within the Siberian permafrost are expected to have a high degree of preservation. The frozen layers of the tundra provide ideal conditions for an animal carcass to remain mostly intact for tens of thousands of years. But this prehistoric horned lark was in excellent condition when it was discovered.

Found In A State Very Close To Time Of Death

During one of his interviews with CNN, Nicolas Dussex, a co-author of the study, revealed that the Ice Age bird was preserved in a state very close to its time of death. He said:

“The fact that such a small and fragile specimen was near intact also suggests that dirt or mud must have been deposited gradually, or at least that the ground was relatively stable so that the bird’s carcass was preserved in a state very close to its time of death.”

According to Dalén, the team plans to sequence the bird’s entire genome. This study will help researchers to estimate the rate of evolution between species and provide a better understanding of the animal’s evolution. Dussex explains that;

“This, in turn, will open new opportunities to study the evolution of ice age fauna and understand their responses to climate change over the past 50-10 thousands of years ago.”

The invaluable specimen is currently being preserved in the Sakha Academy of Sciences collection in Yakutsk.

Yakutsk is a city in Eastern Siberia. This city is said to be the coldest on Earth, with average temperatures dropping below 34 degrees Fahrenheit.

Yakutsk city is famous for producing remarkably preserved species from the past.

Professor Dalén also took part in another exhilarating study last year. The study involved a mummified wolf-dog that was found in the permafrost eighteen thousand (18,000) years after its death.

Dogor, the wolf-dog, was discovered in the same area. Experts date the specimen back to 18,000 years ago.

Scientists named the wolf-dog “Dogor” and carried out an analysis of his genome. This study revealed that Dogor was neither dog nor wolf.

According to Professor Dalén and his team, the prehistoric canine had lived during “a very interesting time in terms of wolf and dog evolution.”

There were at least a handful of similar nearly-intact prehistoric specimens retrieved from the permafrost in recent years.

Worthy of note is the 40,000-year-old whole wolf head from the Pleistocene era that was discovered in June 2019 and the 40,000-year-old foal of a now-extinct horse species that was unearthed in 2018 in the Yakutia region of Siberia.

Researchers believe that there will no doubt be more discoveries from the frozen depths of the Siberian tundra, especially as the permafrost continues to melt away all thanks to climate change.

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