Woolly mammoth shoulder blade, tusk, among ice age fossils found by Yukon paleontology team

Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula and his team have already found the shoulder blade of a woolly mammoth, a complete tusk, some leg bones, a steppe bison, some horses and some caribou.

Grant Zazula and his team found several bones including those of a woolly mammoth

Scott Cocker, a paleontology PhD student, and Elizabeth Hall, an assistant paleontologist with the Yukon government, with some of their findings in the Yukon gold fields in June. Cocker is holding a steppe bison skull while Hall is holding the shoulder blade of a Woolly mammoth. (Yukon government)

Grant Zazula is excited.

The Yukon government paleontologist just spent a week in the Klondike gold fields looking for — and finding — ice age fossils.

So far, he said, he and his team have found the shoulder blade of a woolly mammoth, a complete tusk, some leg bones, a steppe bison, some horses and some caribou.

"We think we found a bone of an ice age fox," he added.

But what has him even more excited is a block of frozen mud from the fields that is now in his freezer.

"You can see a leg bone with skin and hair coming out of it," he said. 

He thinks it's an ice-age rabbit but he'll find out in the fall when he has a chance to look at it more closely.

"So we have another amazing ice age mummified animal from the Klondike," he said.

'Surprising to me'

Zazula's been looking for fossils in the Klondike gold fields for many years and has found an awful lot of them, he said.

They often find ice age mammals like woolly mammoths, steppe bison, ancient horses, lions, wolves and others, typically between 10,000 and 100,000 years old.

The tusk of a Wooly mammoth, some steppe bison skulls and and other bones of ice age animals, found in the Yukon gold fields in June. (Submitted by Yukon government)

And yet, he continues to be amazed that there's always something new, something unexpected that he'll find.

"It's surprising to me," he said. "Every year we kind of think, ah, we're going to go to the Klondike, you know, we'll find the typical stuff and we'll find a few more of these and a few more of that, but every year we find something that's totally radical, something amazing."

Thanks to the gold miners

Zazula found out about the mummified animal because the placer miner who found it decided to collect it, place it in a freezer and call him.

He said gold miners have been finding ice age fossils for 120 years in the Yukon and none of them would be discovered if it wasn't for their careful work.

A gold miner on Whitman Creek uses water a cannon to melt permafrost, which sometimes unearths gold, and fossils of ice age animals. (Yukon government)

"Not only are they, you know, just sort of willing to help us out and hand over bones that they find, but they're also totally excited to be part of this and to work as scientists with our colleagues," said Zazula.

"I don't know many places in the world where we have this kind of a relationship between industry, mining and paleontology. But here in the Yukon, it works really well."

University of Alberta paleontologist Michael Caldwell agrees. He said there are other areas that are likely as rich in ice age fossils but since there is no mining going on in those areas, there are fewer finds.

"Placer gold mining operations dig up, and have dug up, extensive volumes of ice age sediments," he said.

DNA samples

Scott Cocker, a PhD student at the University of Alberta, is with Zazula and is working on finding ancient Arctic squirrels and other animals by collecting DNA samples from the permafrost, hoping to identify frozen squirrel nests.

Cocker drills cores of permafrost that will be analyzed to find ancient DNA. (Yukon government)

A few months ago, Zazula said a report came out indicating that within the frozen soil dated about 6,000 years ago in the Klondike, woolly mammoth DNA was found, "which is amazing because it told us tells us that woolly mammoths went extinct a lot later than we previously thought."

"So we took more core samples of the permafrost for DNA and genetics. And we're going to try to follow up on some of that work," Zazula said.

Make-A-Wish dream come true

Over the summer, other paleontologists from Sweden, France, the U.S., and the Canadian Museum of Nature will join Zazula and Cocker, along with Elizabeth Hall, an assistant paleontologist with the territorial government, and Susan Hewitson, a paleontology field technician.

They'll continue looking for fossils in the Klondike gold fields and spend about two weeks on the Old Crow River.

They'll also be joined for a while in August by a seven-year-old from the Make-A-Wish Foundation who wants to be an ice age paleontologist.

"So we're going to make his Make-A-Wish Foundation dream come true and take him out and collect mammoth bones," said Zazula.

Written by Michel Proulx with files from Dave White