Huge mammoth skull found in Yukon gold fields

Miners in the Klondike gold fields of central Yukon have unearthed a rare fossil: a 1.5-metre-long complete skull, with two tusks, of a massive woolly mammoth.
This woolly mammoth skull, discovered at a Klondike mining property last week, is about 1.5 metres long and about one metre wide. The tusks are more than 1.5 metres long. ((Grant Zazula/Government of Yukon))

Miners in the Klondike gold fields of central Yukon have unearthed a rare fossil: a complete skull, with two tusks, of a massive woolly mammoth.

Workers with Hawk Mining Ltd. discovered the skull, which is about 1½ metres long and one metre wide, along with a pair of intact tusks that are more than 1½ metres long.

"We find the remains of woolly mammoths all the time — we find the broken limb bones and broken tusks — but never a complete skull," Yukon government paleontologist Grant Zazula told CBC News on Tuesday.

Hawk Mining manager John Flynn said a night-shift employee at its mining camp, located along the Sixty Mile River, was digging into some permafrost mud with an excavator last week when he uncovered a horn from the mud and gravel.

"He spotted that and then [he] was very careful and kind of dug around it … and then all of a sudden, two horns came out, and then a skull came out," Flynn told CBC News.

Exciting discovery

Yukon government paleontologist Grant Zazula, in red cap, examines the massive skull fossil after it was taken to Whitehorse. ((Submitted by Grant Zazula/Government of Yukon))
"It was excitement around camp. We didn't call [the government] right away," Flynn added.

"We kind of looked at it and … everybody took pictures and talked about it for a while. Then a decision was made to phone the government."

The massive find was transported to Dawson City — a two-hour drive from the mining camp — and was handed to Zazula, who travelled to the Klondike town to receive the fossils.

"This skull is huge. It weighs a couple hundred pounds, it's got great big tusks coming out of it," Zazula said.

There may be much more of the woolly mammoth buried under the mining camp: Zazula said he found some rib bones and part of a shoulder blade when he visited the site late last week.

"So we have them on speed dial and if anything else gets unearthed, we're hopefully going to get out there as soon as we can," he said.

"If there's a partial skeleton, that'll be even more remarkable and we'll be pretty excited to see that."

Could be put on display

As for the skull, Zazula said it appears to be that of an old woolly mammoth, since its teeth are worn down. Its tusks were broken during its life, possibly in a fight with another mammoth, but they began growing back before they were also worn down, he added.

For now, the fossils will be measured, carbon dated and a conservation assessment will be done. Zazula hopes to put the mammoth remains on display in the future, he said.

"In terms of its sort of public appeal, one single specimen that people can see and be awe-inspired from and learn from, this is definitely the piece," he said.

"I hope it can get on display so kids and people can line up to see it, because it looks spectacular."