Frozen droppings reveal the diet of Arctic sled dogs three centuries ago

Pre-contact proteins discovered include muscle, bone, intestine and eggs from several species of salmon

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A 300-year-old pile of paleo poo has revealed an arctic sled dog’s diet — or at least part of it.

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Scientists have extracted proteins from ancient frozen feces in Alaska and, in this case at least, these proteins reveal that Yup’ik sled dogs from an ancient colony by the Bering Sea ate the muscles, bones, intestines and eggs from a range of salmon species. , explains Camilla Speller, an anthropologist at UBC.

“This breakthrough could help scientists better understand our ancestors and what they fed their dogs as well as the evolution of dogs’ gastrointestinal health,” said Speller, lead author of an international study published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. .

Finding chinook, sockeye and coho protein in feces was surprising, Speller said.

“What we thought was really interesting is that ethnographically and based on traditional knowledge, people said dogs traditionally only ate chum salmon, and chum is actually called dog salmon to because of that,” Speller said.

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“We found a whole range of salmon species there, which suggests that dogs weren’t just being fed this type of salmon. It tells us how they were supplied, how people were hoarding food, putting available extra food to give to their dogs.

Camilla Speller is an associate professor of anthropological archeology at UBC.
Camilla Speller is an associate professor of anthropological archeology at UBC. PNG

The paleofeces date back at least 300 years and had been frozen in permafrost at an archaeological site called Nunalleq, near Quinhagak, Alaska.

The frozen feces were so well preserved that when they were broken in half they smelled like, well, an odor was present – put it that way.

The Yuk’ip had existed at the Nunalleq site for hundreds of years before Russian fur traders began to appear in the early 1800s, based on archaeological evidence. The site is now threatened by melting permafrost and rising sea levels.

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The researchers used a technique called paleoproteomics to recover proteins from fecal samples. Unlike more established analyses, proteomics allows researchers to identify which parts of animals have been eaten.

The presence of eggs indicates that the paleo-feces were delivered during the summer, when the dogs may have been fed differently or less frequently, or were released to fend for themselves.

Working sled dogs need up to three kilograms of fish or meat every day, so feeding them would have been a priority.

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But the lack of marine or land mammals in feces is intriguing.

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“We don’t know if one of the issues is maybe we just have a really seasonal pattern here,” Speller said. “Obviously a coprolite (fossilized excrement) is a snapshot of a particular meal, so we may only be looking for a meal that occurred at a time when salmon were plentiful.”

The really exciting thing about the study, she said, is that it opens up the possibility of looking at gastrointestinal health not just in dogs, but potentially in humans and other species everywhere. where well-preserved coprolite is discovered.

“It gives us an avenue into an area of ​​biological health that was really hard to reconstruct before based solely on the skeleton, alone.

“I think it opens up areas for research in gastrointestinal health.”

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Bette C. Alvarado