Yukon fossil from scimitar cat part of groundbreaking research project

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen mapped the nuclear genome of the scimitar cat using material from a bone found on a Klondike mining claim.

Researchers mapped the nuclear genome of the scimitar cat using material from a bone found in the Klondike

Recent genetic research indicates scimitar cats were built for chasing prey. (Velizar Simeonovski )

A bone from a long dead scimitar cat — a type of sabre tooth cat — found in the Klondike almost a decade ago is giving researchers a wealth of information about the cats and may open the door to much more information about pre-Ice Age animals.

Scientists were able to map the nuclear genome — its complete DNA — for the scimitar cat, said University of Copenhagen researcher Michael Westbury. He said it's one of the first non-human genomes from such an old specimen.

"So it's really pushing the boundaries of what we can do technologically as well," Westbury said of the research.

"We established new protocols and hopefully in the future we would have genomes from many more extinct species and we would know much more about what was going on before the end of the Ice Age," he said.

Westbury said because there have been so few scimitar cat fossils found, it was assumed there were not many of them. But he said the genes passed down to this cat from its mother and father were only distantly related, which probably means there were more of the animals than previously thought.

Model of the extinct scimitar cat, at Whitehorse's Beringia Centre. (Government of Yukon)

The research also indicates it had natural hunting abilities that included good eyesight and the endurance for long distance running, Westbury said.

The cats would have been able to chase their prey until the prey collapsed, he added.

But Westbury said the cat's specialized hunting ability may have contributed to its extinction.

It went extinct at the end of the Ice Age the same time when a lot of its other prey did, he said.

"So you have like the woolly mammoth, woolly rhinos, large North American horses, they all went extinct at the same time," Westbury said.

It's unknown precisely how old the fossil is, though Westbury estimates it's more than 50,000 years old. 

Fossil found in Dominion Creek mining claim

Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula said the bone was found on a Dominion Creek mining claim in 2011. It was a significant find, he said.

Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula says the fossil found in the Klondike is providing significant information to researchers. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

"It's kind of the fossil specimen that just keeps on giving. It's the gift that keeps on giving, he said.

"And it's funny because when that bone was originally found and I looked at it, it seemed to me like a small lion because they're very similar to lion bones."

Zazula said fossils found in permafrost in Yukon are valued because they are better preserved.

He said thousands of bones have come out of the Dawson City and Old Crow areas.

With files from Elyn Jones


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