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'Kind of incredible': Researchers uncover details about ice age wolf pup found in Yukon – Eye on the Arctic

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The intact remains of a wolf pup, named Zhùr, were found by a miner in the Klondike goldfields near Dawson City, Yukon, in 2016. The animal is estimated to be about 57,000 years old and is the most complete mummified grey wolf of its era ever found. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)
Scientists who have been studying a rare, perfectly-preserved ancient wolf pup found in Yukon are sharing some of their findings for the first time.

The 57,000-year-old animal, discovered in the goldfields of Yukon in 2016, is the most complete mummified grey wolf of its era ever found.

“She’s just so complete. She’s so amazing. She’s so intact. I mean she even has her fur, everything is there,” said Julie Meachen, a vertebrate paleontologist from Des Moines University and lead author of the new study published this month in the journal Current Biology.

The researchers were amazed to discover even the pup’s internal organs were intact.

“We can just learn so much more from an animal with skin and fur and organs than we can with just bones. There’s just so much details about her. And she lived 57,000 years ago — I mean this is kind of incredible, that we can get all this details from her when she lived so long ago.”

‘She’s just so complete. She’s so amazing. She’s so intact,’ said researcher Julie Meachen of Des Moines University, seen here with Zhùr and veterinarian Jess Heath at a Whitehorse vet clinic in 2019. Heath is one of several co-authors of the new research paper. (Government of Yukon)

Through a variety of testing and analysis, the team of researchers was able to determine the pup — named Zhùr, which means “wolf” in the local Indigenous Hän language — was just seven weeks old when she died in her den.

Genetic testing also revealed she is not related to wolves found in North America today.

“We learned she is very closely related to ice age wolves in Europe,” says Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula.

“And that’s really interesting because that tells us that there was a major population change that happened in North America with grey wolves at the end of the ice age.”

The scientists say they were most surprised to discover something about the diet of the little wolf. The animal’s last meal wasn’t bison or caribou or muskox as they had expected for the little carnivore — it was fish.

An artist’s rendering of Zhùr’s world, 57,000 years ago. Researchers were surprised to discover that the wolf pup’s diet seemed to include fish. (Julius Csotonyi)

“Based on the analysis of chemical components in her hair and other tissues, we were able to determine what her last meal was,” says Zazula.

He says looking at things like the ratio of carbon and nitrogen preserved in the tissue, it was clear the pup was eating aquatic species, mostly likely salmon.

Culturally significant

Zhùr is significant not only to the scientists, but also to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation in Yukon.

“We are connected to this wolf pup,” says Debbie Nagano, the director of heritage for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and a member of the First Nation’s wolf clan.

Soon after the initial discovery, Zhùr was brought back to Dawson City for a special blessing ceremony with First Nations elders, and was given her name. Nagano says before the animal went off for analysis, the First Nation worked with the scientists to ensure Zhùr wouldn’t be treated just as a specimen.

Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula with Zhùr. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

“That side is quite important to us. There is a connection to it. We don’t want it to be just handled in the view of ‘it’s just an artifact,’” Nagano said.

“We really want it to be able to have the respect behind it also. Not in the way it’s respected physically, it also need to be respected spiritually.”

Nagano says Zhùr has also helped develop better relationships between the First Nation and scientists, and also with the government and the mining community.

“This wolf pup is bringing us together in a good way, that we can all learn from it. That part is a good way to be thankful for this wolf pup.”

Rare find

For their part, the scientists are also grateful to the placer miner who first discovered Zhùr, in 2016.

Neil Loveless came across the animal thawing out of the permafrost.

“I just saw this thing that didn’t quite look right,” he recalled. “I picked it up and to be honest, I thought maybe it was like an old, like a puppy or something … that had fallen down the mine shaft.”

He put the remains in a gold pan and later in a freezer until a paleontologist arrived to have a look.

More precious than gold? Placer miner Neil Loveless put the wolf pup in a gold pan when he found it. At first, he thought it was a puppy that had fallen down a mine shaft. (Government of Yukon)

The scientists say it’s that kind of collaboration with the mining community that makes their research possible.

Ice-age remains are commonly dug out of the permafrost in Yukon — bones of mammoths, bison and horses — but a complete specimen like Zhùr is very rare, at least for now.

Julie Meachen hopes there may be more to find.

“As global warming continues to thaw the permafrost, one silver lining is that other exceptionally-preserved frozen mummies will likely be discovered, providing new windows into the past,” she said.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Moose on the Mediterranean? Research sheds new light on where moose once roamed, CBC News

Finland: Miners hunting for metals to battery cars threaten Finland’s Sámi reindeer herders’ homeland, The Independent Barents Observer

Greenland: Oldest Arctic sea ice vanishes twice as fast as rest of region, study shows, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: In Arctic Norway, seabirds build nests out of plastic waste, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Mass vaccination is underway on Russia’s Yamal tundra, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Warnings in Sweden about dangerous bacteria in Baltic Sea, Radio Sweden

United States: An Alaska volcano and DNA reveal the timing of bison’s arrival in North America, Alaska Dispatch News

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Scientists just found the oldest supermassive black hole yet – lintelligencer

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Scientists just found the oldest supermassive black hole yet

Scientists have discovered about 750,000 quasars, which are among the brightest and most energetic objects in the universe. Despite its uninspiring designation, J0313-1806 is distinct from other quasars. This recently spotted object is the oldest known quasar in the universe, with a supermassive black hole more than 13 billion years old. In fact, it’s so old and huge that scientists don’t know exactly how it could have formed.

The first quasars were discovered in the mid-20th century, but it wasn’t until several decades later that we began to understand what these objects were. A quasar is an active galactic nucleus in which the supermassive black hole that anchors the galaxy pulls in matter to form a gaseous accretion disk. All this matter colliding as it spirals into the black hole releases a torrent of electromagnetic energy that serves as the hallmark of these objects. J0313-1806, for example, shines 1,000 times brighter than our entire galaxy.

J0313-1806 is far away — 13.03 billion light-years to be exact. That means we’re seeing this object as it was just 670 million years after the Big Bang, and it’s still huge. Astronomers estimate J0313-1806 to have about 1.6 billion solar masses as its observed age. That’s not out-of-line for a supermassive black hole elsewhere in the universe, but they’ve had longer to vacuum up matter and grow larger. J0313-1806 shouldn’t have had time in the early universe to grow so large.

The team used ground-based instruments like the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Mauna Kea Observatories (MKO) to spot J0313-1806 last year. It unseated the previous record-holder for oldest quasar, which is about 20 million years younger. Current models of black hold formation assume a star collapses to form a singularity, but the “seed mass” for J0313-1806 would have had to be at least 10,000 solar masses to reach 1.6 billion so quickly.

The study puts forward a hypothesis to explain the existence of this bizarre quasar, known as the direct collapse scenario. In this model, it wasn’t a star collapsing that formed the supermassive black hole. Instead, an enormous cloud of cold hydrogen gas collapsed inward to form a much larger black hole than any stellar source could produce. This could explain why astronomers see so many gigantic black holes in the early universe.

Unfortunately, J0313-1806 is so distant that we can’t gather much more detail with current technology. The upcoming James Webb Space Telescope could, however, be sufficiently precise to image objects like J0313-1806. After many years of delays, NASA plans to launch the Webb telescope in late 2021.

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NASA will test-fire its 1st SLS megarocket for moon missions today. Here's how to watch. – Space.com

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NASA will attempt to fire the engines on its Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket for the first time today and you can watch the fiery action live online.

As part of a critical test before the rocket behemoth  lifts off for the first time, the agency plans to ignite the four main engines on its heavy-lift core booster this afternoon (Jan. 16). The test, which is designed to simulate the core stage’s performance during launch, will take place at the agency’s Stennis Space Center, in Mississippi. 

You can watch the test live here and on the Space.com homepage, courtesy of NASA, beginning at 4:20 p.m. EST (1920 GMT). You’ll also be able to watch the test directly from NASA here.

Today’s engine test is the final step in the agency’s “Green Run” series of tests designed to ensure the SLS rocket is ready for its first launch — called Artemis 1 — that will send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the moon. That first flight is scheduled to blast off later this year.

Video: How NASA’s SLS megarocket engine test works

NASA’s first Space Launch System Core booster undergoes a fueling test on the B-2 Test Stand at the Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi on Dec. 21, 2020. The rocket’s four main engines will be test fired today. (Image credit: NASA)

The SLS is NASA’s next-generation heavy-lift rocket that will ferry astronauts to the moon as part of the agency’s Artemis lunar program. Launching by the end of this year, Artemis 1 will be the first in a series of missions that will culminate in NASA’s first crewed lunar landing since the Apollo era. That mission,  called Artemis 3, could happen as soon as 2024 if all goes as planned. 

To that end, NASA is putting the massive SLS rocket’s four RS-25 engines through their paces prior to launch. The agency has been systematically testing each engine and conducting launch-day procedures such as fueling to ensure all systems are working as expected. 

The upcoming hot-fire engine test, is the final step in the testing process. On Saturday, engineers will load the SLS core booster with over 700,000 gallons of superchilled propellant before igniting all four of its RS-25 engines at once. This will mark the first time that four RS-25 engines will fire at the same time. (The same engines powered the space shuttle but it took only three to make the orbiter fly.) 

Related: These are the space missions to watch in 2021

Burning for approximately 8 minutes — the duration they’ll burn during a launch to the moon — the RS-25 quartet will generate a whopping 1.6 million pounds of thrust during the test. 

“When we ignite the engines, the stage actually will think it is flying,” Ryan McKibben, NASA’s Green Run test conductor at Stennis Space Center, said during a pre-test media conference on Jan. 12. “That’s what it’s built to do. But of course, it won’t go anywhere because the stage is fastened at the same locations where the solid rocket boosters anchored would be anchored.”

As part of the agency’s “Green Run” testing schedule, the megarocket underwent two wet dress rehearsals, during which fuel was loaded, and subsequently drained. Officials said that the tests went well; however, they were not without issue. One of the fueling ops ended early, one was delayed due to temperature issues, and the campaign was also affected by multiple tropical storms as well as the global pandemic. As a result, the agency chose to delay the hot fire test

Photos: NASA’s 1st SLS megarocket core stage for the moon has its engines

The four main RS-25 engines of the Space Launch System core stage. (Image credit: NASA)

Agency officials explained that the delays proved fruitful as the team was able to revise procedures and update the terminal countdown sequence based on pre-flight testing. 

The test is scheduled to take place late Saturday afternoon, and that morning, the day will start with a go/no-go meeting where the team will decide to begin fueling procedures. Once that’s underway, a final poll will be conducted at T-10 minutes to determine if it’s safe to proceed with the hot fire test.

The engines will burn for 485 seconds, or roughly 8 minutes. Once the test is complete, a data review will begin, and is expected to take several days, according to NASA’s Julie Basser, program manager for SLS at Marshall Space Flight Center. 

“This is the first time we fired up this core stage and this is a huge milestone for us,” she said. We are doing everything we can to ensure that we get the most out of this hot fire test and we are ready for launch. Testing provides an opportunity to learn and make sure that the rocket is ready to fly astronauts to the moon.”

If all goes as expected the core stage will be refurbished and then shipped to Kennedy Space Center to prepare for launch. Its expected arrival is slated for sometime in February, where it will be integrated with the rest of the vehicle already on site. 

Currently, the massive rocket’s solid rocket booster segments are being stacked one by one in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

Along with the four RS-25 engines, the SLS will be powered by two solid rocket boosters that consist of five segments fitted together. (Each booster is made from recovered segments that were used on NASA’s space shuttle program.) 

Once fully assembled, each of the two solid rocket boosters will stand 177-feet-tall (54-meters) and produce more than 3.6 million pounds of thrust at liftoff — the bulk of the power during the first two minutes of launch and flight.

Related: Coronavirus delays key tests of NASA’s new SLS megarocket

This first SLS rocket will be used for the  Artemis 1 mission, which is an uncrewed flight that will send  NASA’s Orion space capsule on a trip around the moon, helping pave the way for an eventual planned lunar landing near the moon’s south polar region.

Orion is the third vehicle NASA currently has in development that will eventually fly NASA astronauts to low-Earth orbit and beyond. The first, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule entered service in 2020 as it ferried astronauts to the space station in May and November. 

Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule is expected to launch astronauts later this year, following a successful second orbital flight test. Starliner first launched in 2019, on an uncrewed flight to the space station but failed to reach the orbital outpost following a series of software anomalies. It’s next test flight is scheduled for no earlier than March and if all goes well, then it will carry a crew of three astronauts to the space station later this year. 

Having three different astronaut-toting capsules will provide NASA with the flexibility to routinely send astronauts to low-Earth orbit while also exploring the moon and eventually Mars. 

Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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From extension cords to a homemade barge, two Edmonton buddies try everything to extract a petrified stump – CBC.ca

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Inside the Paleontology Museum at the University of Alberta, past the giant fish skull at the entrance, you’ll find a relic from the time of the dinosaurs.

The 65 to 75 million-year-old petrified tree stump is the latest addition to the museum, and is a point of pride in this small room in the basement of the university’s Earth Sciences building. 

But what impresses museum curator Lisa Budney most is the discoverers of the stump, Mike Lees and Jeff Penney, who went on a costly, arduous, month-long adventure to retrieve it.

“Their willingness to go the extra mile is exceptional,” said Budney. “But also their willingness and acceptance of going through the proper channels in order to make sure they’re collecting things properly.”

“That makes them great citizen scientists.”

The two friends stumbled on the rare find in the middle of Edmonton during a canoe ride down the North Saskatchewan River in October 2019.

The experts were excited, but didn’t have the resources to collect it. 

If these hockey dads didn’t move it, it was likely to wash away down the river by the following spring.

“I don’t think I would have ever forgotten if I just left it there and let it go downriver,” Penney said. 

Once the two men made it their mission to extract the fossilized tree, they refused to be stumped. 

Excitement over find

The day of the discovery, Lees asked Penney to join him for an after-work paddle.

An hour down the river, and a few drinks later, Penney needed to pull over for a pee break. 

The spot they chose is on a narrow muddy bank along the river. A steep cliff about 30 metres tall separates it from any walking trails. 

Lees liked this place because he would often find shells or fish skeletons here. A minute after they pulled over, he realized he was standing on top of something.

Mike Lees and Jeff Penney stumbled upon an 800-pound fossilized tree stump while canoeing down the North Saskatchewan River. They made it their mission to move it — but how? 1:22

“I was really excited at the time,” Lees said. “You could tell that there was a difference between what was on the outside of the tree and the inside of the tree. It looked like bark, but it was stone bark.”

They sensed this could be a major discovery, so they sent pictures of it to the University of Alberta.

Based on its fossilization and location, scientists were able to estimate the age of the stump: the tree was a conifer from the cretaceous period. 

A paleontologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta., called Penney to tell him the news.

“I was thinking it’s like two million years old. He goes, ‘Jeff, it’s estimated it’s probably around 65 million years old. It’s a tree stump with the roots and the bark,'” Penney recalled.

A close-up of the petrified tree stump on the day Lees and Penney discovered it. (Submitted by Mike Lees)

Even though the tree had barely moved from its original place for millions of years, the area around the river is continuously changing in small ways.

By spring 2020, a large section of the muddy bank where the stump stood was largely washed away, which is why Lees and Penney feared it might have been lost if they didn’t move it before winter. 

The university couldn’t secure any funds to collect the stump without a clear research objective, but Budney, the curator they consulted with, was eager to put it on display at the museum.

“I’ve never seen anything this big come out of our river valley since I’ve been working here,” she said. 

University of Alberta museum curator Lisa Budney built a display in the paleontology museum for Penney and Lees’s Edmonton discovery. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

No stone unturned

After hours of paperwork and e-mails between researchers at the university, paleontologists in Drumheller and Alberta Environment and Parks, they received permission from the province to move it, if they wanted to. 

To make sure the stump was still retrievable, Penney and Lees did some reconnaissance work. 

They found a path through the woods that led to the top of the cliff over the stump, which was faster than taking a canoe. 

On a sunny fall day, the two of them rappelled down the 30-metre bank, using extension cords from Penney’s truck. The stump was still there — as glorious as when they found it. 

On the first attempt to remove it, they borrowed a hunting boat. But even with several men to lift the stump, it was too heavy. They also worried the weight of the stump could sink the back of the boat. 

Lees even called Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, but ultimately, they weren’t able to help either. 

Then, Lees and Penney recruited some friends to build their own barge. They took a half-dozen 50-gallon plastic drums and strapped them to a deck they built over a few hours. But they worried that the barge would not be sturdy enough either. 

“We were using our best creative ideas to make it work, but it just wasn’t happening,” Penney said. 

By this time, it was November, and they were brushing snow off the stump. They realized they needed to bring in professionals. 

Penney called a company that did on-the-water and underwater repairs. 

“Usually when we’re picking something up, it’s a man-made problem, someone’s dropped a truck, people go out and sink boats,” said Bill Stark, a marine operations manager at Northern Underwater Systems. “It’s not someone who lost a rock.” 

“Once they explained what they had and the situation, it became more intriguing,” he said.

Penney spent his own money to pay Stark and his crew to remove the rock. 

A professional crew hired by Jeff Penney moves an ancient fossilized tree stump onto an industrial boat to transport it to the University of Alberta. 0:28

When the conditions were perfect, right before the river froze over, they loaded it onto an industrial boat and brought it to the museum. 

A day later and the river would have been filled with too much ice for the boat to travel on.

A place in history 

At around 800 pounds, there are very few petrified trees from this era that are this large and well-preserved, on display anywhere in the world, according to Budney. 

University paleobotanist Eva Koppelhus was able to take samples from the core of the tree and find evidence of pre-historic ferns growing on its base. 

“It’s a great find because it’s often that people find just smaller pieces of wood, but this was a stump and it looked like it was nearly in situ,” she said. 

Mike Lees looks at the downtown view from the water where he and Penney found the petrified stump. He still goes for a paddle whenever he can, whether or not there’s something to discover. (Ariel Fournier)

It’s a signpost of a time back when this wintry city was a hot muggy swampland along a seaway. 

The stump still sits on the pallets it was dragged in on since it’s too heavy to move without a lift. 

Lees and Penney have both brought their kids to see it in person. 

“I’ll be satisfied for a long time knowing that people are going to be able to appreciate this thing long beyond my life,” Lees said.

(Submitted by Ariel Fournier)

About the producer

Ariel Fournier is an associate producer at CBC Edmonton. She’s produced radio documentaries about a 70-year-old wrestler with a flashy hat, adult adoption and the lasting influence of autotune. 

This documentary was edited by Julia Pagel.

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