The back room used by Yukon’s paleontology department is not all that flashy until Dr. Grant Zazula starts spinning wheels reminiscent of bank vault doors and the rows of shelves separate like a giant accordion.
Once there’s space to walk between the rows, it’s clear just how much is being held in this relatively small area.
Deep shelves hold a myriad of treasures from the jaw bone of an arctic lion to the leg from an ancient pig.
Since the Yukon took control of the territory’s paleontology from Ottawa in the mid ‘90s, the collection including fossilized bones and bone fragments found in the territory has grown to about 25,000 pieces. Ten years ago it was only 5,000 specimens, Zazula said.
By next fall or early winter the shelves at the office will be home to a new skeleton, though this one will only be a copy cast in either resin or fibreglass.
The department was responsible for, arguably, the most interesting line item in this year’s territorial budget: under tourism and culture, “$50,000 to purchase two ancient arctic camel skeletons, one for exhibit purposes and one for the paleontological reference collection.”
These type of ancient camels, known as Camelops hesternus, first show up about a million years ago in northern Mexico and roamed the earth until the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.
Their time in the Yukon was much shorter. A brief warm period allowed them to migrate North, but that ended about 100,000 years ago, Zazula said.
As far as anyone can tell, these ancient camels likely looked like a bigger, taller version of its Arabian brethren. Its shoulder would have been about two metres off the ground, plus an extra metre worth of neck.
It ate off bushes, as opposed to grazing, and had only one hump.
Dawson City is a go-to locale for anyone looking for ancient bones in the Yukon.
The public perception of paleontologists, knee-deep in dirt toiling for hours to dig up bones, isn’t the way things are done in Dawson. There, much of the heavy lifting is done by placer miners who use high-powered hoses, similar to water cannons, to wash away the muck and help melt the ground’s permafrost.
“Bones are constantly popping out of the ground from that,” Zazula says.
Zazula’s staff basically spend their whole summer camping in the Klondike, meeting miners and collecting what’s coming out of the ground.
“Often there will be heaps of these fossils,” he says.
But Arctic camel bones are often few and far between, especially in the North.
The headline from a 1913 New York Times article trumpets the find of the first fossilized camel foot bone in northern Yukon.
Zazula has bones found in the 1930s and ‘40s near Fairbanks on loan from the American Museum of Natural History.
In the 1980s a gold miner working near Sixty Mile River found a handful of bones identified as camel.
After that things went bone dry until 2008 when the foot bone of an ancient camel turned up in a pile of other animal bones in Dawson, Zazula says.
“We were pretty shocked back in 2008 because there hadn’t been any camel bones found in literally almost 30 years in Yukon.”
The foot bone has a clear split at the bottom, indicating it belonged to some sort of ungulate with two toes.
Zazula disappears into the bowels of the office shelves to pull out foot bone after foot bone of different animals, laying them side by side. Each bone has a unique end depending on the kind of hoof.
“We knew it’s not a moose, not a bison, not a horse,” he says.
A large part of identifying ancient bones is done by comparing them to known examples.
But in 2008 Yukon’s paleontologists had to rely on a osteology manual from the ‘60s and photos sent to Outside specialists to confirm what they found.
About 30 camel specimens have been found since 2008, Zazula said, all bits and pieces.
The Yukon’s got toes, vertebrae and part of the jaw of a young camel with its baby teeth still intact.
“We find fossil bones, these ancient bones, all the time and without a good reference skeleton to compare things to it’s pretty hard to make positive determinations or identifications.”
That’s why they decided to buy a model, Zazula says.
But where does one shop for an ancient Arctic camel skeleton?
Most museums use replica skeletons as part of their displays, Zazula says.
“So there’s a small industry in making replica skeletons of everything from dinosaurs to monkeys to human ancestors and whatnot.
“So you just have to Google.”
The Yukon hasn’t ordered its models just yet, but Zazula expects they will be moulded from camel skeletons found in California.
It’s unlikely a full skeleton will ever be found in the Yukon, he says. The rolling terrain, plus melting, scavengers and moving rivers means most of the bones here are in pieces.
California’s tar pits have preserved complete skeletons of ancient camels that appear to have gotten stuck in the muck.
A home hasn’t been chosen yet for the second model that will be on display for the public.
Zazula admits to “completely dorking out” over the study of ice aged mammals like the camel.
He says there’s value to Yukoners being able to see the ancient animal that once roamed where they are standing.
“All paleontologists know there were camels in the Arctic and the North at one time,” he says.
“But you tell people from the general public that, they’re like, ‘What? Camels here? Really, are you crazy?’”
The bones allow people to learn about how animals moved and populations changed in the North, and maybe have a better understanding of contemporary changes, he says.
Even failing that, it’s pretty cool.
“I think people will be pretty impressed to stand there and look up at a three-metre-tall camel skeleton, wherever it may rest in the Yukon.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at