Frozen feces reveals the diet of Arctic sled dogs three centuries ago

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Proteins discovered prior to contact include muscles, bones, intestines, and roe of several species of salmon

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Gordon McIntyre Dog feces from sled dogs that are at least 300 years old and frozen in permafrost near the town of Quinhagak, Alaska on the Bering Sea. “I think it opens up areas of research into gastrointestinal health,” says UBC anthropologist Camilla Speller. Photo by Richard Knecht

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A 300-year-old pile of paleo poop has revealed the diet of an arctic sled dog – or at least part of it.


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Scientists in Alaska have extracted proteins from ancient frozen feces, and in this case at least those proteins show that Yup’ik sled dogs ate the muscles, bones, viscera and roe of a number of species of salmon in an old settlement on the Bering Sea, says UBC- Anthropologist Camilla Speller.

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

The discovery of chinook, sockeye, and coho proteins in feces was surprising, Speller said.

“What we thought was really interesting is that ethnographically and based on traditional knowledge, people have said that the dogs traditionally only ate chum salmon, and that’s why chums are actually called dog salmon,” Speller said.


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“We found a number of species of salmon there, which suggests that dogs were not only fed this one species of salmon. This shows us how they were cared for, how people accumulated food and provided additional food for their dogs. “

Camilla Speller is Associate Professor of Anthropological Archeology at UBC. Camilla Speller is Associate Professor of Anthropological Archeology at UBC. PNG

The paleofeces are at least 300 years old and were frozen in permafrost at an archaeological site called Nunalleq near Quinhagak, Alaska.

The frozen feces were so well preserved that when broken in half they smelled like there was an odor – say so.

The Yuk’ip existed at the Nunalleq site for hundreds of years before Russian fur traders emerged in the early 19th century, 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 extract proteins from the stool samples. In contrast to more established analyzes, proteomics allows researchers to identify which parts of animals have been consumed.

The presence of roe suggests that the paleofeces were given up in the summer when dogs may have been fed differently, less frequently, or released to fend for themselves.

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

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But the lack of marine or land mammals in the droppings is fascinating.


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“We don’t know if one of the problems is that we really only eat seasonally here,” said Speller. “Obviously, a coprolite (fossilized feces) is a snapshot of a particular meal. So it could be that we are just looking for a meal that happened at a time when there was plenty of salmon. “

The really exciting thing about the study, she said, is that it opens up the possibility of studying gastrointestinal health not just in dogs, but possibly humans and other species as well, wherever well-preserved coprolite is found.

“It gives us access to an area of ​​biological health that until now was really difficult to reconstruct using only the skeleton.

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

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