Summer started for Yukon paleontologists with the unusual find of three mammoths at a mine site near Dawson.
“As long as the miners keep mining, they’re gonna keep on finding fossils. As long as that happens, this program is gonna keep collecting them. Anytime you go out there, you can find something pretty spectacular,” said Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula.
The bones were found at the Little Flake Mine, which is located near Dawson City and is where the Discovery television show Gold Rush is filmed.
Placer miner Trey Charlie, who found the fossils during excavation work with his crew on May 25, posted a photo with the massive femur — about as tall as him — on social media along with the hashtag “#drinkyourmilk.”
Back at the storage facility in Whitehorse, the big bones – including giant molars and leg bones — are still being examined to see how they fit together.
The researchers originally thought two mammoths had been discovered, but an early look at the bones suggests it could have been three separate animals. The fact that they died together, likely at the same time, might hold some clues about the behaviour of the ancient mammals.
|Mammoth leg bones discovered at the Little Flake Mine outside Dawson City. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)|
“The three of them together suggests that they were part of the same herd,” said Yukon paleontologist Elizabeth Hall.
Hall thinks the three individuals might be an older adult — maybe a mother – — with a young adult and younger “teenage” mammoth.
“The fact that we’re living together might mean, you know, elephants are really social, so there’s probably some potential familial relationships with these animals, which is something we can test,” said Zazula.
The bones are now being collected and will be brought back to Whitehorse and catalogued. Because they are so well preserved, scientists will likely be able to extract intact DNA samples which could provide information about the individuals like age, the time they lived and family relationships.
“One of the things that I’m curious about is, when do baby mammoths start eating food? When do they stop nursing?” said Zazula. “We can look at the chemistry of the bone, the carbon and nitrogen to determine if it’s eating plant material or nursing. So we can get various kinds of growth stages of this family and what they’re eating and their diet.”
Mammoth tusks, like rings in a tree, can also be indicators of a good or bad year for an animal.
Fossils in Old Crow have suggested that mammoths nurse for longer than modern elephants. While Asian elephants typically stay with their mothers for up to three years, it’s possible that mammoths stayed with their mothers for longer.
|A detail of the enamel on a mammoth molar discovered at the Little Flake Mine outside Dawson City. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)|
Zazula speculates that might be because of the mega predators of Beringia – including giant short-faced bears, lions and scimitar cats. A baby mammoth wouldn’t last long in the darkness of an arctic night without a defensive adult.
“So this is just a start, hopefully, we’re going to be learning a lot,” Zazula said.
The fossils are also exciting to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, whose citizens are also excited to learn more about the ancient past of their traditional territory.
“There’s a lot of different reasons why these things are important. Even though they’re 30,000 or 15,000 years old, there’s people who feel a connection to these things because they’re part of the landscape, which is the traditional territory,” said heritage officer Lee Whalen. “It’s really adding a piece of knowledge to what we know about the past landscape.”
Miners have been digging up evidence of ancient history in the area for over a century, said Zazula. Fossils found in the Yukon by miners or other people are required to be reported to the paleontology program and are held in public trust.
Zazula notes that there was no slowdown at the Little Flake Mine despite the discovery.
After contacting Zazula, the government then gets in touch with the local First Nation. After the mammoth discovery at Little Flake, Whalen accompanied the field team in looking at the find.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Whalen. “You think a moose is big, and then you stand to one of these bones and it’s up to my shoulders. These are huge six-ton animals that were roaming the landscape and it just kind of changes your perspective on the place you live.”
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org