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DNA links caribou lineage to volcanic eruption

March 25, 2010

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SFU researcher Tyler Kuhn has recovered DNA from ancient caribou bones possibly linking several small unique caribou herds to a massive volcanic eruption that blanketed much of the Yukon in ash 1,000 years ago.

Kuhn, a Whitehorse native, was able to coax short bits of ancient DNA from caribou bones found in 6,000-year-old ice patches, now melting, in an area just north of the B.C. border.

He and colleagues from Alberta, the U.S. and Britain compared the earlier DNA with that of caribou living in the area today. To their surprise, they discovered that genetic material from bones older than 1,000 years did not match the DNA of the modern caribou herds grazing nearby.

Nor are the neighbouring caribou related to contemporary herds to the north, east or west. They represent relatively new arrivals, possibly from farther south, although the caribou living immediately south today are ecologically very different.

Most importantly, the newcomers’ appearance coincides closely with the eruption of a huge volcano in nearby Southern Alaska that deposited a thick layer of ash over the entire region.

The researchers are the first to identify a possible link between changes in local wildlife and the volcanic event.

The eruption has already been linked to a sharp transition among the region’s aboriginal cultures, from the use of atlatl, or hunting boards, and darts to the use of more effective bows and arrows for hunting.

The researchers believe this unexpected decoding of historical caribou herds in the Yukon is more than just a scientific curiosity.

"Most woodland caribou herds in Canada are threatened, and their survival will likely depend on our ability to act in the best interest of these herds," says Kuhn.

"Understanding the relationships among herds is important, but understanding how herds react to environmental changes through time is equally necessary for us to manage caribou properly."

The researcher’s findings are viewable online in the February issue of Molecular Ecology at at.sfu.ca/mWxNtl.

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