Palaeontology is the study of ancient plant and animal life that are preserved as fossils.
Most fossils found in Yukon are bones from Ice Age or Pleistocene mammals, a great majority of which are woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), horse (Equus lambei), and bison (Bison priscus) that are less than 100,000 years old.
These mammals lived in the region known as Beringia – the largely ice-free sub-continent that stretched from Siberia to Yukon when the rest of northern Canada was covered by immense continental glaciers. Fine examples of these Beringian mammals can be seen at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre.
Knowledge and collection of Ice Age fossils in Yukon has a long history prior to the establishment of the Yukon Palaeontology Program. First Nation’s oral traditions tell us about giant animals that lived underground along rivers near Old Crow. Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader Robert Campbell may be given credit for the first recorded collection of Ice Age fossils, where he mentions bones of “extinct Buffaloes and Elephants” on the Yukon River between 1849 and 1852.
Anglican missionaries collected fossils on the Porcupine River near Old Crow as early as 1873. Some of these early collections were forwarded to the British Museum. Geologists G.M. Dawson and R.G. McConnell of the Geological Survey of Canada mention that miners who followed the Klondike Goldrush of 1898 uncovered numerous Ice Age fossils as they panned and sluiced the creek gravels in search of their fortunes.
In the early part of the 20th century, several expeditions by the Smithsonian Institution, American Museum of Natural History, and even the Paris Museum of Natural History were made to the Klondike and Old Crow regions to collect Ice Age fossils.
The last major expedition by the American Museum of Natural History was by Otto Geist in August of 1952, where he collected 380 specimens representing 9 species dominated by horse (Equus), mammoth (Mammuthus) and bison (Bison). Geist, who was sponsored by the University of Alaska and the Explorers Club, was assisted by two Elders from Old Crow during his collecting trip up the Old Crow River. These specimens are now housed in the Childs Frick Collection at the AMNH in New York.
In more recent times, Ice Age fossil collecting in the Old Crow and Klondike regions has largely been conducted by the now-emeritus palaeontologist Dr. Richard (Dick) Harington of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Through the 1960’s and 1970’s, his palaeontological surveys coincided with other interdisciplinary research on the Ice Age environmental and cultural history of Yukon that was being conducted by research teams assembled from the Geological Survey of Canada (O.L. Hughes, J.V. Matthews Jr.), University of Toronto (W. Irving, J. Cinq-Mars, B. Beebe), Canadian Museum of Civilization (R.E. Morlan), and University of Alberta (C.E. Schweger).
These highly productive Ice Age fossil surveys by Dick Harington from the 1960’s to early ‘90’s are fondly remembered by the placer mining community in the Klondike and community members of Old Crow. This collection of over 40,000 specimens is now housed at the CMN in Ottawa as part of the national collection.
All fossils collected in the Yukon since 1995 have been accessioned into the Yukon Palaeontology collection in Whitehorse. It’s a young collection, but already exceeds 25,000 specimens of Ice Age bones and is growing rapidly.
In the early days of the Yukon Palaeontology Program, fossils were recovered by the now-retired Yukon Palaeontologist Dr. John Storer and his many research collaborators. Specimens of Ice Age plants, including fossil pollen, seeds, leaves and other remains are also studied by the Yukon Palaeontology Program and included in the collection. Recent additions to the collection include numerous fossil nests of arctic ground squirrels (Spermophilus parryii) that were recovered from placer mining exposures in the Klondike.
Since 2010, the Yukon Palaeontology Program has maintained a research field station in the Klondike goldfields near Dawson City. Palaeontology Assistant Elizabeth Hall and Palaeontology Technician Susan Hewitson work closely with the placer gold mining community during the mining season from May to September. Throughout those months, the palaeontologists visit gold miners and collect the plethora of Ice Age mammal fossils that are uncovered during mining activity.
Since the establishment of the Klondike Field Station, the Yukon Fossil Collection has tripled in size! Some days, the palaeontologists collect hundreds of new fossils. With the abundance of new fossils recovered during the summer months, the program has made significant increases to our fossil collection of rare species, including Ice Age camels (Camelops hesternus) short-faced bears (Arctodus simus), and lions (Panthera leo spalaea).
These newly recovered collections are being actively studied by the Yukon Palaeontology Program and the many international scientific collaborators who visit the Yukon annually. A major focus of the program is collaborating with geneticists who study ancient DNA preserved in the fossil bones. Because of the permafrost, Yukon’s Ice Age frozen mammal fossils are of great scientific significance to understanding the evolution, adaptations and extinctions of mammals in the North.
Although Ice Age mammals are mostly what we work on in Yukon, there are a wealth of other fossil remains that stretch back much further in geological time. In 1998, dinosaur tracks were discovered in rocks near Ross River. Some of these tracks had to be protected from weathering, and now are stored in the collection. Recent discoveries of rare dinosaur and Mesozoic marine reptile fossils in the Peel River region have led to new scientific discoveries. Pre-Pleistocene fossil fish, invertebrates and plant impressions are not uncommon in Yukon, but Yukon Palaeontology has not amassed much of a collection so far.
One of our goals is develop a better inventory of plant and invertebrate fossils in Yukon, not only because they are important for reconstructing aspects of Yukon’s ancient environments, but also because they are important for reconstructing the complex geologic history of North America.
We also maintain a comparative collection that includes bones of modern mammals, birds, fish, plant seeds, leaves, and pollen. This comparative collection is very useful to help identify fossils and support research by the Yukon Archaeology Program.
Development of our collection has been made possible with the generous support and collaboration with Yukon First Nations, Yukon placer miners, industry and numerous research institutions.
Please contact the Yukon Palaeontologist for further information or if you are interested in visiting our collection or studying Yukon’s fossils.