Fossils found in Yukon in 1973 were from ancient rhino, turtles

Tiny bits of teeth and pieces of bone were found near Wolf Creek

Illustration showing the habitat of paleontologists believe ancient rhinoceros roamed in Yukon about eight million years ago, based on fossils discovered near Whitehorse by a teacher leading students on a hike near Whitehorse in 1973. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Illustration by Julius Csotonyi

Joan Hodgins remembers the “wonderful day” in April 1973 as she hiked up hills and hopped over creeks with half a dozen kids participating in an outdoor program she led near Whitehorse.

Along the way, the 22-year-old educator plopped what looked like tiny bits of teeth and pieces of bone into a couple of plastic bags as her students asked why she was collecting the pieces by an old copper mine near Wolf Creek.

“I said it sure shines nice in the sun and I’m not sure if anything is anything,” Hodgins told them of the fragments in the bags she’d take home to Regina.

In 1998, she decided to give the bags to an employee of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum before he headed to Yukon, where they were kept on a shelf among the territory’s fossil collections.

Now, they have been identified as belonging to a rhinoceros and two species of turtle that paleontologists believe lived about eight million years ago.

“I’m not what you’d call a hoarder but I keep things like that,” Hodgins said from Whitehorse, where she was visiting friends from her home in Eastend, Sask.

A study based on her discovery — identified with the help of Jaelyn Eberle, a curator of fossil vertebrates at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado Boulder — was published Thursday in the journal American Museum Novitates.

“What are the chances?” said Hodgins, who spent three years in Yukon in the 1970s.

She credited Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula, a co-author of the research, for contacting her in 2014 and working to get the fragments identified.

“They could still be sitting in collections and eventually thrown out if nothing was done with them,” Hodgins said. “Because of his curiosity and his commitment to the fossil world he has brought all of this about.”

Zazula said Eberle, an expert on pre-ice-age mammals, was contacted as “probably the best person in the world to work on this.”

She used a tool called a scanning electron microscope to reveal the structure of tooth enamel that would have come from an ancient relative of today’s rhinoceros from an age when the climate was much warmer in Yukon.

“We have literally truckloads of woolly mammoths around here but we never find anything that predates the ice age until this discovery,” Zazula said, adding the find fills a gap in the story of the evolution of life in the Arctic and Yukon.

The rhinoceros would have been a big animal, perhaps three metres long and a couple of metres tall, about as big as today’s black rhino in South Africa, Zazula said.

“We’re not used to seeing such big animals today in North America so it’s pretty neat to envision what life was like back then,” he said, adding the rhino and turtles would have gone extinct about four millions years ago as the weather started to cool and they could no longer feed on leaves from trees.

KEEP READING: Scientist finds fossil evidence in southern Alberta of sabre-toothed cat

“It’s really exciting to learn about this time period, especially in the North where there’s a lot of concern about global warming and what are the kind of changes that are going to happen in the landscape.”

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

UPDATED: Itska back in owner’s arms after Oak Bay man returns dog taken from Tofino

Shannon Boothman expects to be reunited with Itska on Sunday

Tofino and Ucluelet’s Top 10 sports and arts stories of 2019

Revisiting the Coast’s best sports and arts newsmakers of the past year.

Rent-It Centre takes over curbside collection contract in Tofino and Ucluelet

Rent It Centre’s bid was $25,865 lower than the only other bidder, SonBird Refuse and Recycling.

Tofino’s first cannabis dispensary opens

“I don’t know where it’s going, but happy how it’s gone so far.”

Tofino welcomes much needed veterinarian to town

West Coast has not had a full-time vet since Dr. Jane Hunt surrendered her licence in 2004.

After cashing in on QB gambles, Chiefs and 49ers to clash in Super Bowl

KC beats Tennessee, San Francisco dispatches Green Bay to reach NFL title game

B.C. VIEWS: Few clouds on Horgan’s horizon

Horgan’s biggest challenge in the remainder of his term will be to keep the economy humming along

Victoria family focuses on ‘letting go, enjoying time together’ after dad gets dementia

Walter Strauss has developed an interest in music and now takes line dancing classes

B.C. forest industry grasps for hope amid seven-month strike, shutdowns, changes

Some experts say this could be worse for forestry than the 2008 financial crisis

Northern B.C. RCMP investigating alleged sexual assault in downtown Smithers

One person was transported by ambulance to hospital following RCMP investigation at Sedaz

UBC, Iranian-Canadian community create memorial scholarship in honour of victims

The Jan. 8 crash killed 176 people, including 57 Canadians

Disrespectful that Horgan won’t meet during northern B.C. tour: hereditary chief

Na’moks said he was frustrated Horgan didn’t meet with the chiefs

Most Read