Photo Friday: Alpine Animal Ice Mummies

A version of this article by Jørgen Rosvold was published by the NTNU University Museum on January 18, 2017.

Most people associate mummies with the embalmed pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Not all mummies come wrapped in linen though and most are actually created through purely natural means, called natural or spontaneous mummification. Such mummies formes when a dead body lies in an environment that largely slows down its microbiological decomposition. This sometimes happens in very dry, oxygen poor or cold environments, for example within glaciers and ice patches.

 

Some naturally mummifed small mammals from glaciers and ice patches in Norway (source: Jørgen Rosvold and Per Gätzschmann/NTNU University Museum).
Some naturally mummifed small mammals from glaciers and ice patches in Norway (source: Jørgen Rosvold and Per Gätzschmann/NTNU University Museum).

 

Frozen human and animal mummies have melted out of the ice all over the world. Even in tropical areas, like central Africa and South-East Asia, a range of mummified birds and mammals have been recorded at high altitudes. One of the most famous is that of a leopard carcass found on a glacier at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1926, which is supposed to have inspired Hemingway’s “The snows of Kilimanjaro”. Another leopard mummy was likewise found in glacier ice on Mt. Kenya in 1997 and was radiocarbon dated to have died about 900 years ago. Most finds of animal ice mummies have, however, been made in the northern parts of the world where a larger number of potential sites have been systematically searched, like Scandinavia and North America. In warm years, with lots of glacial melting, certain ice patches and glaciers are even littered with numerous small bird and rodent mummies.

 

Mummified leopard found on Mt. Kilimanjaro (source: Jørgen Rosvold and Per Gätzschmann/NTNU University Museum).
Mummified leopard found on Mt. Kilimanjaro (source: Photo courtesy of Jørgen Rosvold).

 

How did all of these animals get up on the ice to get mummified? Some of the mummies that we find are of animals that naturally visit such places. Others could have been deposited by predators as a food cache for later. However, a large number of them are not of species that we would normally expect to find on high alpine ice, like many of the rodents and tropical species like the leopard.

 

A collection of mummified birds collected from alpine ice patches in central Norway and in Yukon, Canada (source: Jørgen Rosvold).
A collection of mummified birds collected from alpine ice patches in central Norway and in Yukon, Canada (source: Jørgen Rosvold).

 

In Grasshopper Glacier in Montana swarms of grasshopper mummies have even been found entombed in the ice. Some of these finds are likely from animals that died while migrating across mountains or after being carried up by strong updrafts. Others are more cryptic and could be an indication of unknown behaviors that should be studied in more detail.

 

A mummified chamois found on a glacier in Switzerland (source: Bündner Naturmuseum)
A mummified chamois found on a glacier in Switzerland (source: Bündner Naturmuseum).

 

These animal ice mummies are usually extraordinary well preserved, even for ice patch finds, and in line with the famous permafrost finds of mummified Ice Age mammals. The alpine ice mummies vary greatly in age from less than hundred to several thousands of years old. While not as old as the Ice Age permafrost finds, they are usually much more frequent within local areas. They thus provide unique information about natural history that one rarely can find in other sites, and could potentially shed light on the evolution of certain pathogens and parasites.

 

A recently melted out lemming mummy from a Norwegian ice patch (source: Tord Bretten/ SNO).
A recently melted out lemming mummy from a Norwegian ice patch (source: Tord Bretten/ SNO).
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Roundup: Pakistan’s Glaciers, Jobless Sherpas, Ancient Rivers

This Week’s Roundup:

Pakistan has more glaciers than almost anywhere on Earth. But they are at risk.

From The Washington Post:

Mohammad Idrees, 11, eats ice that has been hacked from the mountain peaks by vendors and offered for sale along a road in the Chitral Valley last month (Source: Insiya Syed /For The Washington Post).

“For generations, the glacier clinging to Miragram Mountain, a peak that towers above the village, has served as a reservoir for locals and powered myriad streams throughout Pakistan’s scenic Chitral Valley. Now, though, the villagers say that their glacier — and their way of life — is in retreat….

With 7,253 known glaciers, including 543 in the Chitral Valley, there is more glacial ice in Pakistan than anywhere on Earth outside the polar regions, according to various studies. Those glaciers feed rivers that account for about 75 percent of the stored-water supply in the country of at least 180 million.

But as in many other parts of the world, researchers say, Pakistan’s glaciers are receding, especially those at lower elevations, including here in the Hindu Kush mountain range in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Among the causes cited by scientists: diminished snowfall, higher temperatures, heavier summer rainstorms and rampant deforestation.”

Read the full story here.

 

Sherpas Denied Summit Certificates

From The Himalayan Times:

Climbers ascending the Lhotse face on Mt Everest. Photo credit: Garrett Madison
Climbers ascending the Lhotse face on Mt Everest (Source: Garrett Madison/THT)

“The Department of Tourism, under the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, has refused to award high-altitude workers summit certificates, citing a clause of the Mountaineering Expedition Regulation that bars them from obtaining government certificates….

He said DoT couldn’t issue certificates to Sherpas as per the existing law, claiming that high-altitude workers are not considered a part of the expedition as per the Mountaineering Expedition Regulation that was framed in 2002. ‘The regulation considers only those who obtain climbing permit by paying royalty to the government as members of an expedition’ [Laxman Sharma, Director at DoT’s Mountaineering Section, told THT].

This is the first time in the country’s mountaineering history that Sherpas have failed to obtain government certificates despite successfully scaling mountains.”

Read the full article here.

 

Ancient Rivers Beneath Greenland Glacier

From Live Science:

Image from the research article published in Nature (Source: Cooper et al, 2016/Live Science).

“A network of ancient rivers lies frozen in time beneath one of Greenland’s largest glaciers, new research reveals.

The subglacial river network, which threads through much of Greenland’s landmass and looks, from above, like the tiny nerve fibers radiating from a brain cell, may have influenced the fast-moving Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier over the past few million years.

‘The channels seem to be instrumental in controlling the location and form of the Jakobshavn ice stream — and seem to show a clear influence on the onset of fast flow in this region,’ study co-author Michael Cooper, a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, told Live Science. ‘Without the channels present underneath, the glacier may not exist in its current location or orientation.”

Full story continued here.

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