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A gold miner found a mysterious grapefruit-sized fur ball. It turned out to be a 'perfectly preserved' 30,000-year-old squirrel.

A stiff ball of brown fur sits in a pair of human hands wearing white surgical gloves.
This ball of brown fur and gnarled legs and claws turned out to be a mummified Arctic ground squirrel.Yukon Government
  • A Yukon gold miner discovered a mangled ball of fur about the size of a large grapefruit.

  • X-rays show the fur ball is a curled-up ice-age squirrel in "great condition," scientists told CBC.

  • The squirrel is estimated to be 30,000 years old and likely died during hibernation.

At first, this brown, mangled ball of fur and claws was unidentifiable.

But X-ray scans have revealed that this grapefruit-sized lump is a 30,000-year-old mummified ground squirrel from the ice age.

An x-ray of a balled up squirrel skeleton showing a long rounded spine.
X-ray scans revealed a well-preserved squirrel skeleton.Yukon Government

A gold miner found the mysterious fur ball in 2018 in the Klondike gold fields near Dawson City, Yukon, according to the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre.

"It's not quite recognizable until you see these little hands and these claws, and you see a little tail, and then you see ears," Grant Zazula, a Yukon government paleontologist, told CBC in March.

Jess Heath watches a brown furry ball under an x-ray scanner on a white table.
Jess Heath, a veterinarian, scanned the squirrel mummy.Yukon Government

He took it to Jess Heath, a veterinarian, for further investigation. Heath conducted X-ray scans that revealed that the frozen hair ball was a young, curled-up Arctic ground squirrel. It likely died in hibernation, possibly during its first year.

"We could see that it was in great condition and it was just curled up like it was sleeping," Heath told CBC.

An X-ray of a squirrel skeleton curled into a ball circle with its legs folded up and skull visible.
Another X-ray angle clearly shows the squirrel's legs and skull curled up.Yukon Government

"I'm really impressed that someone recognized it for what it was. From the outside, it just kind of looks like a brown blob. It looks a bit like a brown rock," she said.

The Klondike gold fields of the Yukon have been covered in permafrost — frozen soil — since the ice age. That makes the area perfect for preserving creatures that died back then — hair, nails, and all.

Gold miners there have previously found a mummified wolf pup and an immaculately preserved baby mammoth.

A full-body view of a mummified wolf pup found in the Yukon.
A full-body view of the wolf pup mummy.Yukon Government

Discoveries like these are likely to become more common as global temperatures continue to rise due to human emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane. That's causing the permafrost to thaw, revealing everything from mummified creatures to viruses and anthrax deposits.

A ground squirrel for the ages

An illustration of an arctic ground squirrel curled up in a burrow underground.
An illustration of the mummified squirrel curled up in its burrow during hibernation.Government of Yukon / Artist Julius Csotonyi

This squirrel was discovered within the Traditional Territory of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in people.

It's the same species of Arctic ground squirrel that still lives throughout the Yukon today, though they look more like groundhogs than tree squirrels.

An Arctic ground squirrel small on all fours on a patch of dirt surrounded by grass.
An Arctic ground squirrel, the same species as the mummified ice age critter.DeAgostini/Getty Images

Arctic ground squirrels make nests underground for their hibernation. Many of these nests have been preserved since the ice age, and they're common in the Yukon — but finding a preserved squirrel like this is rare.

"I study bones all the time and they're exciting, they're really neat. But when you see an animal that's perfectly preserved, that's 30,000 years old, and you can see its face and its skin and its hair and all that, it's just so visceral. It brings it so to life," Zazula said.

An arctic ground squirrel eats a dried up plant stem in a cluster of pink field flowers.
Arctic ground squirrels nest in the ground, which has left their traces throughout the permafrost.Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

"Some people get really, really excited when they find that giant woolly mammoth leg or, you know, the big tusks or the big skulls. But for me, the Arctic ground squirrel fossils, the nests, and now this mummified squirrel, are really the coolest things that we do have. They're my favorites, for sure," he told CBC.

The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre posted photos of the mummy and its X-ray on Facebook, announcing that it would put the specimen on display.

"It's amazing to think that this little guy was running around the Yukon several thousand years ago," the post read.

This story has been updated. It was originally published on April 11, 2023.

Read the original article on Business Insider