Yukon gives up major fossil

Jul 10, 2003, vol. 27, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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When Grant Zazula (above) helped unearth the most impressive and well preserved fossil find in the Yukon last summer (July 2002) he almost screamed: “Yabba-dabba-doo.”

The favourite exclamation of Fred Flintstone, a prehistoric cave dwelling cartoon character on TV, would have been appropriate from Zazula.

As a child, the Simon Fraser University doctoral student in biology was a fan of the Flintstones.

Now a paleontologist studying animal and plant fossils near the Alaska/Yukon border, Zazula is living out his childhood dreams of discovering colossal prehistoric mammals.

“The wooly mammoths on the Flintstones, with their vacuum cleaning and shower head powers, inspired my fascination with ice age animals as a kid,” laughs Zazula. “That's when I first started dreaming of figuring out how these animals lived and what ecosystems enabled them to survive during ice age climates.”

While exploring an Arctic creek bed near Dawson City last summer, Zazula and Duane Froese, a postdoctoral fellow at SFU, made discoveries that led them to co-author a paper recently published in Nature.

Encased in frozen earth, rich in gold deposits, they found a wooly mammoth tusk, 2.8 metres ((10'6") long, with a maximum circumference of 0.56 metres (22") and weighing 85 kilograms (183 lb).

Zazula credits gold miners in the area with making the creek bed and its paleontological gold accessible to scientists.

“This tusk is about 25,000 years old and would have belonged to a wooly mammoth that was about one and half times the size of an African elephant. Considering that such an elephant eats about 125 kilos (275 lb) of food a day, a mammoth like this would have eaten a lot more to survive in the Arctic,” emphasizes Zazula.

The discovery of this mammoth tusk would have been enough to make Zazula, only in the first year of his doctoral studies, ecstatic.

But what really got him thumping his chest, like Fred Flintstone, was his subsequent discovery and analysis, along with four colleagues, of macrofossils.

The bits of ancient plants, such as seeds and leaves, and insects were embedded in icy soil.

“This finding and previous ones like it that I made near Old Crow, north of Dawson City, suggest that this area was covered in cold, dry grassland during the last ice age,” notes Zazula.

He and his colleagues are the first paleontologists to find macrofossil evidence that backs up a controversial theory. It identifies the Bering land bridge, an unglaciated landmass that once connected the Yukon to Siberia, as a migration corridor for animals, plants and humans during the last ice age, 27,000 to 12,000 years ago.

The theory is controversial, despite the discovery of other mammal bone fossils, because there has never been evidence of vegetation to feed them.

Floods and climate changes that heralded the end of the last ice age buried the Bering land bridge and fostered the growth of spruce forest and tundra, inhospitable environments for gigantic mammals.

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