When diamond miners in the remote Siberian town of Udachny unearthed a bizarre mummified creature recently, its identity generated some debate online. But after speaking with experts, we're calling this "tale from the crypt" solved.

Because the mine sands in this area were deposited sometime between the early Triassic and late Cretaceous periods, initial reports suggested the animal was some kind of small dinosaur. Though its stiff body does have a slightly dino-esque stance, this mummy is no prehistoric beast. 

Osteo preparation specialist Darien Baysinger, who has been working with mummies for 25 years, explains that what we're looking at is the desiccated body of a Russian fitch (also known as a European polecat, Mustela putorius). 

"It's definitely a mustelid," she says. "And the species fits the region, size and tooth configuration. It would be easier to say with certainty if we had a top-down view, and it's possible that I'm wrong – but not likely."

At first glance the mummy looks substantially larger than a typical polecat, but there is something else at play here: forced perspective. Most media outlets have published the cropped photograph of the Russian mummy you see above. The less circulated full image, however, shows a miner holding the remains away from his body for a camera closeup. This creates the optical illusion of enhanced size – the very same trick that turned a healthy wolffish into a "Fukushima mutant" and made Frodo Baggins look pint-sized in Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings trilogy.

Like their weasel and mink relatives, polecats posses a slender body with short legs and powerful jaws. In fact, you've probably encountered their domestic descendants, the ferrets. In life, our darling demon was actually pretty darn cute.  

Image: Peter Trimming/Wikimedia Commons

(Not convinced? Here, have a polecat skull.)

While some have speculated that the find is actually an "the ancestor of the wolverine" dating back many millions of years, the body's morphology and stage of preservation suggest otherwise. What's more, polecats are expert burrowers, which would explain how this modern-day animal met its entombed end. 

"This isn't a fossil, and these mines are new," says Baysinger. In fact, the Udachnaya pit, where the mummy was found, has been a pit only since 1971. "[The polecat] probably either took shelter from a storm, or chased a bit of prey down there and got lost," she says. From there, the sands of time had their way with it. 

Russia's sand-packed mines have all of the necessary ingredients for making the perfect mummy: dry air, relatively few insects and cool temperatures. Did we say cool? We meant "sweet mother of all that is holy, don't go outside!". In the winter months, daily temperatures in the area range from minus 35.2 to 43.6 degrees Celsius (-31.4 to -46.5 F). 

Bacteria typically eat away at a body as it decomposes – and that microbial munching still happens on the road to becoming a mummy. But in these extreme conditions, Baysinger explains, the internal bacteria quickly die off because of low oxygen and the quickly desiccating nature of the environment. "Basically the body dries too fast to become soup," she says. 

Depending on environmental factors like temperature and moisture content, a natural mummy can form in just six short weeks (though it often takes much longer). Those same conditions can also make fresh mummies look older than they are. In the end, carbon-dating the bones is the only way to confirm this animal's age, and that's exactly what experts in Russia intend to do next. Prehistoric or not, the shrivelled specimen is still an interesting find. 

"I'd certainly love to get my hands on that thing!" adds Baysinger with a laugh.  The body will be moved from Udachny to regional capital Yakutsk for further investigation, but so far, no official study plans have been released.


Top header image: Rooney Wimms/Flickr