46,000-Year-Old Bird Found With Feathers And Talons Intact In The Siberian Permafrost

Published February 21, 2020

Scientists identified the specimen as a horned lark, which they believe could be an ancestor to two lark species alive now.

Prehistoric Bird

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

Archaeologists have uncovered many remarkable, ancient specimens from the Siberian permafrost. This time they found the mummified remains of a whole bird — and it still had its feathers and talons intact.

According to CNN, the 46,000-year-old bird has been identified as a horned lark, or Eremophila alpestris, and scientists believe it could be a prehistoric predecessor to two subspecies alive today, the horned larks in the Mongolian steppe and those living in northern Russia.

Moreover, this is the first known wholly intact bird specimen ever dug up in the frozen tundra.

“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,” said Love Dalén, an expert in evolutionary genetics from the Swedish Museum of Natural History and part of the research team that examined the ancient bird.

Based on the team’s study, which was published this week in the journal Communications Biology, the bird has been frozen since the last Ice Age and was found 23 feet below ground inside a Siberian ice tunnel.

The unique specimen was discovered by local fossil hunters near the village of Belaya Gora in northeastern Siberia.

Talons And Feathers

Love DalénClose-up of the specimen’s feathers and talons which have survived since the Ice Age.

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 exceptionally good condition.

“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,” said Nicolas Dussex, a co-author of the study.

The team plans to sequence the bird’s entire genome which will give researchers a better understanding of the animal’s evolution. Examining the bird’s genes could also help researchers to estimate the rate of evolution between species of larks.

“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,” Dussex explained.

The “priceless” specimen has been recorded into the Sakha Academy of Sciences collection in Yakutsk.

Dogor Wolf Dog

Centre for Palaeogenetics/TwitterDogor, the wolf-dog, was discovered in the same area. Experts date the specimen back to 18,000 years ago.

Yakutsk is a city in eastern Siberia — said to be the coldest on Earth with average temperatures dropping below 34 degrees Fahrenheit. The area is known to produce remarkably preserved species from the past.

Last year, Dalén took part in another exciting study which involved a mummified wolf-dog that was found in the permafrost after having died 18,000 years ago. The scientists named the wolf-dog “Dogor” and an examination of his genome revealed that he was neither wolf nor dog. According to the scientists, 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 wholly intact specimens retrieved from the permafrost in recent years. In June 2019, researchers uncovered a 40,000-year-old whole wolf head from the Pleistocene era. The year before, scientists unearthed a 40,000-year-old foal of a now-extinct horse species, also in the Yakutia region of Siberia.

There will no doubt be more discoveries from the frozen depths of the Siberian tundra, especially as the permafrost continues to melt away due to Earth’s changing climate.

Now that you’ve read about the first avian species dug out of the Siberian permafrost with its feathers and talons still in place, check out the mummies of a wolf and caribou found with their skin and fur intact. Then, discover the prehistoric beast called the “Siberian unicorn” whose discovery shocked scientists.

Natasha Ishak
A former staff writer for All That's Interesting, Natasha Ishak holds a Master's in journalism from Emerson College and her work has appeared in VICE, Insider, Vox, and Harvard's Nieman Lab.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
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Ishak, Natasha. "46,000-Year-Old Bird Found With Feathers And Talons Intact In The Siberian Permafrost." AllThatsInteresting.com, February 21, 2020, https://allthatsinteresting.com/horned-lark-bird-permafrost. Accessed May 18, 2024.