For Yukoners missing their dose of ice-age facts and tales about the occasionally terrifying creatures that used to roam the territory, an upcoming series of live online presentations may just be enough to scratch that itch.
The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, which has been closed since mid-March thanks to COVID-19, will be hosting “Science Talks” on Facebook Live throughout the summer.
The series will kick off on May 28 at 7 p.m. with a presentation on ice age mammals by Yukon government paleontologist Grant Zazula, who told the News in an interview May 21 that he’ll also be touching on paleontology work in the territory overall.
“I’m always amazed living in Whitehorse and Yukon …We think we do a lot of research and we get a lot of stuff out in the media and people talk about what we do, but there’s still a lot of people that don’t know very much at all about the kind of work that we do with ice-age paleontology and Beringia and all that,” he said.
“So our idea for my first talk of the summer will be just to give a general overview of the work that we do and the work that we can’t do this summer because of COVID-19 and kind of how that works.”
While the possibility of doing any field work this summer is uncertain at best — getting to sites often involves transiting through communities or the use of a helicopter, the confined nature of which isn’t conducive to following physical distancing protocol — Zazula said he and other scientists have been keeping busy in other ways.
“Scientists and artists are kind of similar in that we often don’t work normal schedules, you know? … I’ve told a number of people lately, like, I’ve had some of the best ideas in terms of writing up research over the last two months while riding my skateboard,” he said.
“That’s kind of what scientists and artists often do, we’re always thinking, we’re always considering what we’re doing and it’s not just what we do, it’s who we are so, you know, this time of COVID … gives you a bit of different time to evaluate what you’re doing, so I’m getting a chance to write up research results that I’ve been sitting on for years.”
Part of Zazula’s talk will highlight, or at least hint at, some of the new developments in the Yukon’s ice-age-research world, including the as-of-yet-unannounced discovery of a new species of cat (asked to elaborate, Zazula replied, “Nope, nope, nope, I won’t”) as well as new results about the 50,000-year-old mummified wolf pup found in a Dawson City-area mining claim in 2016.
Zazula said his goal was to “kind of whet people’s appetites” in anticipation for future presentations by his colleagues later in the summer that will drill down into specific findings or projects, and to leave “people entertained and engaged with science and the work that we’re doing at the Beringia Centre.”
Like many things, COVID-19 was a stumbling block for the centre’s summer plans: among the events that have had to be postponed was the opening of a new exhibit featuring the aforementioned mummified wolf pup, which has been in storage following brief showings in Dawson City and Whitehorse in 2018 and 2019, as well as a mummified ice-age caribou.
That unveiling will now take place whenever the centre reopens. Until then, Zazula said he and other scientists are going to try and share as much as they can online.
Along with the livestream talks, there are also a series of videos on the Yukon’s natural history that the Beringia Centre will be gradually rolling out on Facebook. As well, Zazula said a paleo artist — basically, an illustrator who specializes in doing graphic reconstructions of ancient animals like dinosaurs or ice-age mammals — will be doing a series of demonstrations showing people how to draw, for example, a wooly mammoth or cave art, and a program has been set up with Yukon schools to have scientists virtually visit classrooms to give talks on topics like climate change.
“I think what happened is, the first month that COVID hit, we all ran around like chickens with our heads cut off going, ‘The sky’s falling, what do we do?’ And once we kind of got our feet back on the ground, you know, people are starting to put things together and now they’re just going to start to get unveiled,” he said of the upcoming online programming.
“…Just because we’re not out there collecting fossils doesn’t mean we’re not studying fossils and learning new things about the Yukon and Yukon’s ancient past and people and animals and places.”
While the diets of creatures that wandered the Yukon tens of thousands of years ago or the climate during the last ice age may not be top of mind for many people right now, there’s still value in continuing to share natural history knowledge and research, Zazula said.
“What was the biggest topic of the year before COVID hit?” he asked. “It was climate change, it was (climate activist) Greta (Thunberg), right? And who’s talking about Greta right now? Very few of us — we all of a sudden forgot climate change was happening because everyone’s freaking out about COVID-19.”
The study of paleontology during the ice age, he explained, “is really telling the story of how climates have changed in the Arctic over a very short geological time period and very recent geological time period,” and sharing findings and research is a good way to keep the topic in people’s heads.
“COVID-19 is going to end one day and climate change is still going to continue and we still need to work on conservation of animals and habitats and ecosystems,” he said. “…The work we do is really the evidence of that change, so I think it’s important to continue keeping that in the public’s mind.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org