Missing: Horse skull from Yukon's Carcross desert

Tourists spotted a century-old horse skeleton sticking out of the sand on Friday night. Archeologists arrived Saturday morning to dig it up. In the meantime, the skull vanished.

Tourists found an old horse skeleton on the weekend. Within hours, the skull was gone

The bones were spotted sticking out of the desert sand on Friday. Archeologists arrived Saturday to retrieve a full skeleton - but found the skull was now gone. (Jessica Hall)

It's not terrifically old, but Yukon archeologists are still pretty chuffed with their latest find — a nearly complete horse skeleton, dug out of the Carcross desert this past weekend.

Nearly complete because somebody apparently made off with the skull, hours after it was discovered.

"If it was a local Yukoner who stumbled upon this Friday night and they did find the skull and took it home... we would love to get that skull back and make this a complete skeleton," said Greg Hare, a Yukon government archeologist.

'Lo and behold, there was almost an entire horse skeleton in the sand, and we spent a number of hours excavating it,' said Yukon government archeologist Greg Hare. (Vic Istchenko/CBC)

Ancient horse skeletons are often found in Yukon, but Hare said this appears to be a modern horse skeleton, perhaps a hundred years old.

"The fact that there's no flesh at all on it, there's a bit of hair preserved, certainly suggests it's been in the sand for a long time.

But I wouldn't say thousands of years, I would say probably 20th century."

'What's that coming out of the sand there?'

The bones were first spotted Friday evening by some tourists travelling by bus from Whitehorse to Skagway, Alaska. The bus had stopped at the Carcross desert, a popular photo stop along the way.

The bones were just meters from the highway, likely uncovered just recently by the dune-shifting winds.

Hare said the bus driver immediately phoned archeologists to tell them what happened.

The Carcross desert is a popular tourist stop along the South Klondike Highway, south of Whitehorse. The bones were found just meters from the highway pull-off. (Jessica Hall)

"One of the people in the bus said, 'what's that coming out of the sand there?'" Hare was told. "It looked like the carcass of an animal, emerging out of the sands of the desert."

Hare drove out from Whitehorse the next morning, but initially couldn't find anything. He got the bus driver to visually guide him to the spot, using his mobile phone. 

"Lo and behold, there was almost an entire horse skeleton in the sand, and we spent a number of hours excavating it."

But alas, the skull — initially spotted by the bus tourists — was gone, apparently plucked from the sandy grave and stolen away within hours of its resurrection.

A major score 

Still, Hare calls the find a "major score" for Yukon paleontologists and archeologists, because they've long sought a full, modern horse skeleton to use for comparative purposes when studying ancient bones.

Yukon government paleontologist Elizabeth Hall studies the bones. The skeleton will be used to compare to older horse bones found in Yukon. (Vic Istchenko/CBC)

Hare says Yukon horse owners have sometimes offered up newer skeletons, but they're always buried deep and often still within a decomposing body. 

"Up 'til now we've always passed on that, because the task was too daunting," he said.

The newly-found skeleton is in good shape, and was easy to dig up.

"It's been de-fleshed, it's been cleaned by the sands, and time — so this is a pretty good score for us."

With files from Vic Istchenko