PALEONTOLOGISTS IN YUKON are working to solve one of the North’s great mysteries — the reason for the major extinction of large mammals at the end of the last ice age — and gold miners and Indigenous hunters are helping gather the clues.
Yukon lay beyond the reach of the massive glaciers that covered most of Canada at various times during the Pleistocene era, which lasted from 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago, and a rich diversity of large mammals (horses, woolly mammoths, ground sloths, lions, camels and other exotic animals) thrived on its tundra landscape.
Today their bones lie preserved in the permafrost, but there’s no need for paleontologists to go digging for them. Around Dawson, miners who search for gold in stream beds are constantly unearthing fossils, and Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula and his colleagues have only to travel the back roads every summer to visit the miners and collect what they’ve found — around 6,000 fossils each year. In Old Crow, the people of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation are experts at finding and identifying bones exposed by eroding riverbanks, and play a prominent role in the research.
Genetic analysis allows Zazula to discover the relationships between animals and how their populations changed over time. Permafrost preserves DNA, and information can be coaxed from the tiniest of samples — from where an animal urinated, for instance, or from microscopic organi