Bizarre Things Scientists Have Found Trapped in Ice
Amazing, beautiful, terrifying and weird — scientists have found countless interesting and downright bizarre things buried and preserved in ice. In recent years, global warming has caused these types of discoveries to happen more often. As the Earth’s ice melts at an alarming rate, more oddities are emerging from the shrinking tundra.
Despite the frightening implications of the world melting around us, it provides an incredible opportunity to take a peek back in time. Check out 30 of the coolest (and weirdest) things scientists have found in ice — some of them thousands of years old.
The Frozen Lighthouses of Michigan
Not everything hidden in the Earth’s ice is ancient and mysterious. Every winter, the lighthouses on Lake Michigan become barely recognizable, as ice formations turn them into gorgeous frozen works of art. In order for these “sculptures” to happen, the air has to remain well below freezing for an extended time, while the water remains unfrozen.
During the colder parts of the year, the air temperature on Lake Michigan can drop down to 20 degrees below zero. When winter storms occur, waves almost 20 feet tall crash into the piers, creating a layer of ice on surrounding objects. At times, the ice can build up several feet in just a few hours!
A 39,000-Year-Old Brain
Talk about a smart discovery! In 2010, scientists discovered a woolly mammoth mummy with a surprisingly well-preserved brain. At the time, it was the only preserved mammoth brain ever discovered. Researchers believe the mammoth (named Yuka) was likely between 6 and 9 years old when it died.
Found in the Siberian permafrost, the 39,000-year-old brain included visible brain folds and blood vessels. Although researchers say the specimen likely thawed and froze several times in a variety of conditions, they were still able to study the cerebellum, located at the back of the brain, and even see the white and gray matter of the cerebrum.
A Variety of Modern Day Mammals
In 2017, one unfortunate German fox fell into the Danube River and drowned, eventually becoming fully encased in ice. It’s unclear how long he had been there before local hunter Franz Stehle extracted the animal and put him on display in the middle of town, but it was likely only a short time.
Although it seems a bit disrespectful, Stehle says he put the fox on display to warn locals of the dangers of stepping out onto frozen water. Unfortunately, the fox’s legs were not frozen, so the clever business owner put it in a tub of water to fully encase the body. The same man also claims to have found a deer and a boar.
Frozen (But Alive) Alligators
Not everything trapped in ice is dead. If you ever see an alligator floating in a frozen pond, don’t get too close! He might just be waiting out the weather. Although alligators can’t completely freeze, of course, they can survive for at least a couple of days in an icy pond.
On several occasions, scientists have observed alligators displaying a “nose poking” behavior during the colder months. When the weather becomes so cold that the water will likely freeze, the animals fully submerge their bodies and poke out just the tips of their noses. This allows them to continue to breathe, even if the surface turns to solid ice.
Long Lost Airplanes
Almost as often as explorers find animals (or remnants of them), they find relics of war. In 2018, a team of searchers located the wreck of a P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft more than 70 years after it went missing. Found deep within a glacier in Greenland, the wreck was part of a lost squadron of U.S. warplanes.
The aircraft was part of a group of B-17 bombers and P-38 fighters flying from the U.S. to Great Britain in July 1942. After flying into a severe blizzard, all eight aircraft were forced to crash land on the surface of the glacier.
A Very Hungry Fish
Two Indiana brothers made the discovery of a lifetime in 2017 when they found a frozen pike fish that died mid-meal. According to reports, the boys found the pike frozen near the surface of Lake Wawasee in northern Indiana — with a bass hanging out of its mouth.
Although it’s not clear how these two ended up frozen in such a position, there are several theories. One of the most popular suggests that the bass was already dead and floating near the surface when the pike swam up and tried to eat it. The pike then choked and died, and both fish froze where they were.
A New Dinosaur Species
On the afternoon of March 21, 2011, heavy equipment operator Shawn Funk was busy excavating at the Millennium Mine in McMurray, Alberta, just as he had done hundreds of other times. He didn’t know he was about to unearth a never-before-seen dinosaur.
Hours into his work day, Funk’s bucket hit something hard. Not sure what it was, his boss suggested they check it out. As it turned out, they had inadvertently discovered an incredibly well-preserved borealopelta markmitchelli (nodosaur) — a heavily-armored, plant-eating dinosaur. It was frozen in excellent shape, and it remains the best fossil of its kind ever found to this day.
A Flash-Frozen Bird
Christoph van Ingen was skating on a frozen ditch in the Dutch town of Oostzaan when he came across a kingfisher frozen into the surface of the water. The kingfisher is native to Europe, although the striking blue color of the bird he found isn’t common at all. They are known for diving straight into the water to catch their meal of choice — minnows and sticklebacks.
Typically, kingfishers migrate when the weather turns cold. This particular year, however, the area was blindsided by a record-breaking cold front dubbed the “Beast from the East.” Experts believe the birds didn’t have time to move out, and this particular specimen just happened to flash-freeze as he dove in for a snack.
An Ice-Age Puppy
In 2011, a group of Moscow hunters were scanning a riverbank for mammoth tusks when they happened upon something even more valuable — an Ice Age puppy. The dog’s snout was just peeking out from the permafrost, barely visible. The men immediately alerted Sergei Fyodorov, head of exhibitions at the World Mammoth Museum at North-Eastern Federal University.
“To find a carnivorous mammal intact with skin, fur and internal organs — this has never happened before in history,” said Fyodorov. He continued on to say that finding puppies is very rare, mainly because they have thin bones and delicate skulls. It hasn’t been determined whether the puppies were domesticated or wild.
A Rare Copper Arrowhead
Archaeologist Christian Thomas and his team were in the Yukon filming a documentary when they happened upon an ancient artifact by pure luck. The scientists were flying over a mountainside when they spotted a herd of caribou and decided to land. On the ground, Thomas spotted a barbed antler arrow shaft sticking out of the ice.
The arrow fragment was about 11 inches long and tipped with a copper hunting arrow point. The find is significant because it’s one of the earliest known examples of bow and arrow technology ever found in the Yukon as well as one of the earliest examples of copper metallurgy.
Thousands of Viking Artifacts
Melting glaciers in Norway have been releasing thousands of Viking treasures out into the elements, and as the climate continues to warm in the area, experts anticipate many more discoveries to come. Since 2011, archaeologists have been surveying the edges of glaciers in Oppland, Norway. So far, the objects they have found date back as far as 4,000 B.C.
Some of their more interesting finds include wooden skis, Bronze-Age arrows and Viking swords and clothing. The scientists have found that many of the objects are from the time period between the 8th and 10th centuries — a period that experienced a large population boom that directly led to the Viking Age.
Blood Falls Glacier
This one isn’t so much about an object found in the ice, as it is about the ice itself. Blood Falls in East Antarctica is named for its rusty red hue. Up until recently, the source of the falls was a mystery, as the average temperature in McMurdo Dry Valleys is roughly -17 degrees Celsius.
Now, scientists understand both the color and the source. The hue was initially thought to come from red algae, but it’s now known that the source of the falls is a complex underground network of subglacial rivers and a subglacial lake — all filled with brine that is high in iron.
The glaciers of the world are retreating at an alarming rate — perhaps more so in Alaska than anywhere else. Factors such as warmer summer temperatures and less winter precipitation are only making the issue worse. As one of the state’s largest glaciers — the Mendenhall — continues to shrink, it has exposed the remains of an ancient forest.
Countless stumps and trunks, many still rooted and bearing bark, now sit in a gravelly mix churned up by the glacier. The trees, which are predominantly a mix of spruce and northern pine, are being exposed to open air for the first time in more than 2,000 years.
Ancient Inca Sacrifices
Like many ancient cultures, the Inca performed human sacrifices as a means of appeasing the Gods. These ceremonies often took place during or after important events, such as the death of an emperor. The victims were typically children, as they were considered physically perfect and healthy — traits most likely to please the deities.
The first evidence of these human sacrifices was found atop a peak in Chile in 1954. Since then, dozens of other sites have been uncovered, including one with a remarkably intact girl researchers have named Juanita. Scientists believe there may still be hundreds more children entombed in the ice atop the astoundingly tall Andean peaks.
The Mummy of a Young Boy
The Incas worshiped the breathtakingly high peaks of the Andes, believing they provided a direct means of approaching the Sun God, Inti. That’s why so many sacrifices were made on peaks that were well over 20,000 feet tall, despite the thin air and life-threatening cold.
Because the sacrifices took place at such high elevations, many of the bodies have been preserved in ice and snow for hundreds of years. One such child was discovered by researchers in 1985, his arms and hands wrapped around his knees, and one foot placed over the other, as if to keep warm. His hair was still plaited in more than 200 braids.
Freakishly Good Preserved Artifacts
Artifacts buried beneath ice — like the remains of Incan sacrifices or prehistoric dinosaurs — can remain in astonishingly pristine condition for thousands and thousands of years. Why? Because the ice not only keeps things at a frigid temperature, but also cuts off the normal supply of oxygen from the atmosphere.
Because bacteria and fungi can’t survive in those conditions, organic matter decomposes at a phenomenally slow rate. In fact, instead of breaking down right away, it can linger for millennia. It’s not uncommon for human remains to still have skin intact or for an animal to still have soft tissues and hair.
Memories of Wars Past
War is always difficult, but when World War I was fought more than 100 years ago, it was especially brutal. Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops fought hand-to-hand at altitudes up to 12,000 feet in temperatures as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit. Many of the dead couldn’t be removed from the mountains and were left to the elements.
Only about a third of the more than 150,000 soldiers who died there were killed in battle. The rest succumbed to injuries and illnesses caused by the extreme cold. Now, more than a century later, the soldiers and their personal belongings are coming to light as the icy peaks melt.
The Canadian Ice Man
Kwaday Dan Ts’ìnchi, also called “Long Ago Person” or “Canadian Ice Man”, was found in a melting glacier in British Columbia in 1999. Three Canadian sheep hunters were hiking through the Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Wilderness Park when they noticed a walking stick, fur and bone lying on a glacier. They notified museum officials as well as local authorities.
As the artifacts were found in the traditional territory of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, its representatives were dispatched to the site. They ultimately found the incomplete skeleton of a man. (His skull was later located in 2003). Research indicates he lived around 1700 AD, and his death was likely an accident.
The Woolly Mammoth
One of the more frequently found artifacts — or at least the one most often on the news — is the woolly mammoth. The first specimen was discovered in 1806, and more than a dozen other mammoths have been located since then. One example stands out above all the rest: the female woolly mammoth found in a Siberian ice tomb in 2013.
Scientists believe the creature got stuck in a swamp and died more than 39,000 years ago. With clumps of hair and preserved muscle fiber still intact, she is the best specimen of a woolly mammoth ever discovered. It has even been suggested that researchers could use DNA samples from her remains to create a new mammoth.
10,000-Year-Old Spear Found Near Yellowstone
In 2010, researchers from The University of Colorado located an ancient hunting weapon in melting ice near Yellowstone National Park. Ice patch archaeologist (and university professor) Craig Lee found the 10,000-year-old wooden dart while conducting research in the Beartooth Mountains.
The 3-foot-long dart, which was made from a birch sapling, would have had a projectile point on one end and a cup on the other end that would have attached to the hook on an atlatl. Although it became bowed as the ice melted and narrowly missed being snapped in half by a passing animal, it still bore the personal markings from an ancient hunter.
Otzi the Iceman
In September of 1991, German tourists stumbled across human remains protruding from the ice while hiking in the Alps. Although authorities initially believed it was the body of a young mountaineer who had recently died, it was soon discovered that the corpse was more than 5,000 years old!
Known as the Iceman or the Hauslabjoch mummy, Otzi is one of the most well-preserved human specimens ever found. Some of his clothing was still intact, including a pair of snowshoes, and researchers could even determine what he ate for his last meal (goat and grains). Sadly, although he had a number of ailments, including an arrow wound, it seems that Otzi died from a blow to the head.
A Rare Woolly Rhino
Woolly rhino remains are extremely rare. Since the 18th century, only two complete adult bodies have been found, neither with hair intact. That’s why when a hunter found Sasha — the only complete young woolly rhino ever discovered — it was a HUGE deal.
The baby woolly rhino, who roamed the Earth at least 10,000 years ago, was found in a frozen riverbank in Siberia. She was about 5 feet long and 2.5 feet tall, and researchers believe she was about 7 months old when she died. If that’s the case, it makes her significantly larger than modern rhinos, who don’t reach that size until about 18 months old.
A Pair of Adorable Cave Lions
In 2015, Russian researchers discovered a pair of remarkably intact cave lion cubs in the Ice Age permafrost of Yakutia, Siberia. Named Uyan and Dina, the cats were the first of their kind ever found in such a well-preserved state. They had likely been in the ice for at least 10,000 years.
Originally thought to be one to two weeks old, scientists now believe they were much younger. After scans revealed the cubs had no milk in their tummies, it was theorized they were perhaps just one or two days old. Although it’s not clear how they died, soil in their digestive tract suggests it may have been a den collapse, possibly from a landslide.
A Perfectly Preserved Atlatl
An atlatl (pronounced at-latel) is a stick with a handle on one end and a hook or socket that engages a light spear or dart on the other. A quick flick of the tool (used as far back as the Upper Paleolithic era) can propel the dart quickly, allowing a hunter to easily take down a large animal such as a caribou.
In 2018, a perfectly preserved 1,000-year-old atlatl was found in the Yukon’s melting ice patches. It was in such pristine condition that the feathers and tar used as glue were still attached. Jennifer Herkes, the heritage manager for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, said, “I’d never seen anything like that before, it was amazing.”
A Yucky Surprise
In what we can only describe as a crappy surprise, researchers once found a dart shaft inside the preserved feces of an ancient caribou. How the dart shaft ended up inside the caribou, only to be pooped out later, is unclear, but it’s still a remarkable discovery.
Why are the contents of the caribou’s poo so important? Well, for scientists, it shows that humans were living in the area, and they were skilled craftsmen and hunters. The presence of relics like this also provides valuable information about where animals roamed and what other creatures lived in the area.
Frozen Bacteria Back from the Dead
Bacteria are like cockroaches — they can survive almost anything. Still, even bacteria do have some limits. For instance, water heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit or greater will kill bacteria. Up until recently, it was also believed that extreme cold would do them in.
Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that bacteria are living within the polar ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Although this may not bode well for us, it’s still an intriguing discovery. Researchers say that because bacteria can survive in such harsh conditions, it could mean that life can exist on other planets that were previously deemed too cold.
Anthrax and Smallpox and Tetanus! Oh My!
Saying that frozen bacteria may not bode well for humanity could be an understatement. As the permafrost melts at an unprecedented rate, bacteria that have been trapped or dormant for millennia are being released and coming back to life. According to the BBC’s Jasmin Fox-Skelly, “melting ice could potentially open a Pandora’s box of diseases.”
For example, in 2018, ice melt in the Siberian tundra uncovered an anthrax-riddled reindeer carcass that then infected thousands of living reindeer. Dozens of locals became ill, and a 12-year-old boy died. Scientists have also found evidence of Spanish flu, smallpox and tetanus in other areas. Catching a nasty virus from a Neanderthal is a very real possibility!
Melting Will Continue to Reveal More Treasures
Glaciers and permafrost hold countless treasures buried inside them, and as the climate continues to warm up, they will release more and more of those treasures back into the world. There are numerous negative impacts of global warming, but the recovery of ancient artifacts could be one unexpected positive. Interestingly, the bacteria found in ice may play a surprising role in the way we assess climate change.
Previously, it was believed that ice was bacteria-free, and the gases trapped inside provided an accurate picture of what life was like in the past. Now, it’s known that bacteria can survive in frigid conditions, and pre-industrial era CO2 levels may have been lower than previously estimated. Man’s harmful impact on nature may have been greater than previously imagined.
It’s not something you hear about very often, but scientists find ancient poo hidden in ice more often than anything else. It certainly isn’t glamorous, but scientists can actually learn a lot from feces. Take, for example, the 17,000-year-old puma scat researchers discovered in 2019.
The poop was found inside a rock shelter 3,582 meters (11,751 feet) above sea level in Argentina. Upon examination, scientists found eggs from the parasite Toxascaris leonina, a type of roundworm that continues to infect animals even today. They say this discovery will make it easier to determine how parasites evolve over time.
The Impact of Global Warming on Artifacts
Although the melting permafrost and glaciers are giving us more access to artifacts than ever before, it’s also exposing those same artifacts to the elements for the first time in thousands of years. The reason organic material remains so well-preserved in ice is because it isn’t exposed to the elements, so what will happen when that suddenly changes?
According to researchers, climate change has the ability to completely wipe out a lot of history. As the ice melts and artifacts become exposed to warmer temperatures, bacteria, oxygen and other hazards, they will start to break down quickly. With global warming unlikely to slow down anytime soon, the race is on to save many artifacts from human history.