About a half-hour before his lunch break one June morning, Travis Mudry was operating an excavator and digging through permafrost in the Klondike gold fields of the Yukon in Canada.
He was scratching at a frozen wall of earth. Suddenly, a big chunk popped out. Along with it was a body of a baby woolly mammoth, frozen and preserved with its hair and hide.
“I thought it was a baby buffalo in the beginning,” Mudry, 31, of Alberta, said. “And then I got out, and I was inspecting it, and it had a trunk, so I had no words.”
The mammoth was dark and shiny, Mudry said, with short legs and deep, pronounced eye sockets. It had a skinny, wrinkled trunk and a nub of a tail. He quickly waved over a co-worker and called his boss, Brian McCaughan, co-founder of a family-owned gold mining company called Treadstone Equipment.
“It’s in front of us glistening in the sun looking like it just died,” McCaughan, 57, said of the June 21 discovery. “It was crazy.”
He compared its size to that of a white-tailed deer. McCaughan said that unearthing bones, even from mammoths, was commonplace during mining but that this discovery was incomparable.
“It’s like we got rewarded by Mother Earth when you pull something like this out of the ground,” he said.
Experts estimate that the mammoth was just over a month old when it perished in mud. It was then captured in time, encased in the frozen layer of ground known as permafrost, during the ice age more than 30,000 years ago, said Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for the Yukon government.
To be this well preserved, the mammoth must have been buried by mud very quickly, Zazula said, calling the circumstances “nothing short of a miracle.”
He said the baby mammoth was a little over 4 1/2 feet from the base of its tail to the base of its trunk. Though its body was broken in half, possibly by the excavator or by natural forces over time, he said it was “complete from tip to tail.”
He said it might be the best-preserved specimen found in North America and could even surpass Lyuba, a female woolly mammoth calf found in Siberia in 2017 almost intact but missing a tail.
Woolly mammoths, ancestors to modern elephants, once traversed the Northern Hemisphere. They disappeared about 10,000 years ago because of excessive hunting and climate change.
Mammoths were abundant in the Yukon’s ancient past, said Joshua H. Miller, a paleontologist and professor at the University of Cincinnati.
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 had contributed to the wealth of discoveries. But most have been bones, not mummies.
The find is important for research, Miller said. Experts can gain a greater understanding of the mammoth’s anatomy and environment, and even the conditions that led to its long preservation.
There’s also profound meaning for the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin people, the Yukon First Nation whose territory the mammoth died in, Zazula said. He believes this is an opportunity for healing for the nation, which has had a century of conflict with gold rush prospectors.
Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin elders gave the mammoth the name Nun cho ga, “big baby animal” in the Hän language, according to a news release issued last week.
Roberta Joseph, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in chief, said in a statement that the First Nation looked forward to working with the Yukon government “on the next steps in the process for moving 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 it was found, awaiting further analysis. While studying the mammoth will reveal “incredible details” about the ancient past, even what the animal’s last meal was, there was no rush, Zazula said.
Together, the First Nation, the Yukon government, scientists and the miners are embarking on a journey of cultural and scientific discovery, he said.
“This woolly mammoth is really a symbol of all that together, and how to go forward in a good way,” he said.