Ancient Treasures in the Muck of Dawson

Dawson City is no stranger to a flurry of summer activity, but this summer a group of researchers arrived in town looking for something other than gold or the Midnight Sun.

An international team, funded by National Geographic and lead by Beth Shapiro, Pennsylvania State University, and Duane Froese, University of Alberta, was in search of ancient animal bones.

Working closely with many supportive placer miners, the team sifted through knee-deep muck, the ground placer miners need to remove to get to the gold-bearing gravels, in search of remnants of the Pleistocene mega-fauna – those bison, wild horses and caribou that roamed the Yukon during the last ice age.

Of course the team was always happy to collect the occasional mammoth tusk as well. In all, the team added nearly 1,000 bones and five complete mammoth tusks to the Yukon Palaeontology collections.

But the team was not just out to collect bones. It was focused on one of the unique opportunities afforded by our beloved Yukon. Thanks to a unique twist of geography, and the tireless work of placer miners, the Dawson City goldfields have yielded a phenomenal record of life in the Pleistocene preserved in a permafrost deep-freeze.

These frozen bones, in turn, can provide ancient DNA experts like Shapiro and her colleague, Mathias Stiller, with enough of this hard-to-find DNA to start unravelling some very challenging questions.

But this natural genetic storehouse holds one more unlikely attribute, and it is one that Duane Froese and his colleagues have spent the last 16 years researching.

Spread across the Yukon are literally hundreds of thin volcanic ash layers – a unique time-stamp on the soil where they are found. In fact, “it’s this volcanic history which makes this area very unique,” says Britta Jensen, a graduate student at University of Alberta. And it’s this time stamp that is allowing Shapiro and Stiller to collect and use DNA which until now was considered too old to be used.

Of course, a summer spent collecting fossils is guaranteed to hold some exciting discoveries. One of the highlights was the discovery of a single bone from a scimitar cat, a relative of the infamous sabre-tooth tiger. “It really shows you how rare some of these bones are”, says Yukon Government palaeontologist Grant Zazula. “We are talking quite literally 1 in a 1,000.”

But if you asked Zazula about what the really exciting finds were, I’m sure he would undoubtedly tell you it was the prehistoric ground squirrels, with their perfectly preserved nests frozen in the prehistoric mud. And sorry, they don’t have sabre teeth.

As for myself, after a month of mud and grime, it always seems that the best finds are made in the last day or two. Just before returning to my day job, we came across a beautifully preserved 11.5-foot-long mammoth tusk. It’s what makes you want to come back next year, and see what more is hiding in the muck of Dawson City.

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