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Ice age steppe bison skull found near Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.

The skull was reportedly found by a construction worker on the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk highway. It belonged to a much larger Ice age relative of the modern bison currently found in North America.

Specimen can be used to learn more about diet, habitat and genetics

The skull of what is believed to be a steppe bison was reportedly uncovered last week during construction of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway. (Aurora Research Institute)

A skull believed to have belonged to an ice age steppe bison is on its way to the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse, after it was reportedly uncovered on the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway last week.

The species went extinct within the last 5,000 years, but the skull can help scientists learn more about how it lived. 

Skulls like this one are found relatively frequently in the Yukon, but are much less common in the Northwest Territories — all because of how the ice sheets behaved thousands of years ago. 

"The reason you don't find a lot of stuff is that the majority of the Northwest Territories was covered in this big ice sheet," says Elizabeth Hall, a Yukon government paleontologist. 

However, she explains, there was a narrow strip of land on the Arctic coast, where large mammals like mammoths and steppe bison would have thrived. 

When they died, their remains would have been buried and quickly frozen, which has been a boon to modern scientists. 

"Because these specimens are frozen in the permafrost ... they're pretty well preserved, they're like a modern specimen in a sense," says Hall. "So you can get biological information out of them, which you wouldn't be able to get from something that's been sitting out." 

A well-preserved skull can contain a wealth of information. By testing for particular isotopes of carbon and nitrogen, scientists can get information about the individual's diet. By looking at the element strontium in their teeth, they can tell where the animal lived and roamed. Even the dense bones of the inner ear can yield DNA and its plethora of genetic information. 

This latest skull, while a rare find for the Northwest Territories, is not the first. An extremely well-preserved and nearly intact steppe bison specimen was found near Tsiigehtchic in 2007; that 11,000 year-old carcass included hide and even intestines. 

That preservation was also due to the frozen ground. 

"Thank you, permafrost," laughs Hall. 

About the Author

Jimmy Thomson is a former reporter for CBC North.

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