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Bison at Elk Island National Park. (Bob Bittner/For The Globe and Mail)
Bison at Elk Island National Park. (Bob Bittner/For The Globe and Mail)

HISTORY

Millennia-old bison skeleton found in Whitehorse couple's basement Add to ...

The remains of what are believed to be a prehistoric bison have been unearthed while a couple dug up their basement in suburban Whitehorse.

Craig Duncan and Sandy Murphy were digging to lay a power line last Wednesday when they discovered a near-complete bison skeleton.

“We were down about three feet, sifting through some of the stones down there to lay the electrical lines when I kicked what looked like a piece of bone,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview.

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“First, I thought it could be a dinosaur or something, but when we saw the hoof, we thought it could be a horse or a bison.”

Mr. Duncan had once installed flooring at the offices of the heritage resources unit in the Yukon Department of Tourism and Culture, and took his find there the next morning.

“What I did was gather as many bone pieces as I could into a garbage bag and I took them to the office.”

Staff there were glad he did.

“We went out to the site to see what we could find,” said Grant Zazula, a paleontologist with the Yukon government.

“Luckily, (Duncan) had the equipment to get us to the money layer. About five feet down, we found the better part of a bison skull and most of a complete skeleton.”

The bones have yet to be radio carbon dated, but researchers estimate they may be 10,000 years old, remnants of one of two ancient groups of bison which roamed the Whitehorse area as early as the last ice age.

“It was likely a prehistoric lake, and it may have been that the animal was living up on the ice and fell through, dying on the bottom,” Mr. Zazula said of the property that now belongs to the couple.

Some of the bones are missing, but the skeleton is in remarkably good shape – a rarity in the territory, and especially in southern Yukon, said Mr. Zazula.

“There have only been about 10 partial bison finds in the Yukon,” he said.

“And nothing as complete as a full skeleton. We expect findings in the Dawson area, but we would never have thought we'd find something like this in the city.”

Bison have a long and often tumultuous history in the Yukon.

Ice age bison, such as this one, died off along with prehistoric mammals like the woolly mammoth, possibly as a result of climate change.

“At that time, we witnessed a wholesale collapse of many ecosystems throughout the region,” said Mr. Zazula.

Most of the subsequent migratory herds had died off before the arrival of Europeans to the territory, while those in the Yukon today were brought in through repopulation efforts of the 1970s.

Paleontologists expect to know more about the origins of this specimen soon.

“Right now, our best guess is that these bones are about 10,000 years old, but everyone goes into these investigations with their story already planned out; it makes things more exciting. Really, we won't know for sure until the radio carbon dating results come back.”

The government has also contacted Dr. Beth Shapiro, an associate professor of biology and bison DNA expert at the University of Southern California, who will be examining a piece of the bone soon.

Yukon paleontologists are already taking bets on the age of the remains and may even extend that wager to the public, said Mr. Zazula.

It also hopes to put the bones on display.

“The great thing about serendipitous finds like this is that they change the way we understand our history,” said Mr. Zazula. “It's very a significant find.”

That find was made possible because two citizens came forward with their discovery.

“The lesson here is anyone out there digging basements should keep their eyes peeled for bones,” said Mr. Zazula.

“No one would have ever guessed that there would be bison bones there, and there were. So who knows where else they could be?”

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