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Megafauna in the pavement

When thinking about the Prince George area, one of the last things that comes to mind is that this area was once a stomping ground for mammoths.

Researchers from Simon Fraser University are contributing to the British Columbia Megafauna Project. The project studies large ice age animals found in BC by documenting items from both private and public paleo collections. In July of 2020, SFU researcher Laura Termes, an Archaeology Ph.D. student, visited the Exploration Place to learn more about mammoths from this region and to take a sample from a mammoth tusk in the museum collection.

Using radioisotope analysis (carbon for age and nitrogen for diet), the research team is piecing together how megafauna (mega=large; fauna=animals) in the province lived. The data they gather will provide information on the health and age of the animals, their diets, and how and where they migrated. The researchers do this by performing minimally invasive sampling and testing on bone and teeth samples, such as the tusk from The Exploration Place’s museum collection.

The maps used by the research team show significant glaciation in BC, suggesting that BC probably looked a lot different during the ice age than previously thought. We now know that many more remains lie beneath the soil all over BC, even here in the North. The researchers have discovered that the remains of over 40 mammoths have been found across the province.

Mammoths came to North America from Asia. Two species of mammoths lived in BC during the Pleistocene period, the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbii) and the famous Wooly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). In addition to mammoths, the researchers have sampled other extinct animals such as bison, elk, mastodons, and ground sloths. However, mammoths are one of the best species indicators for this work because of the astronomical amount of food and water they required to survive each day. Indicator species are those that serve as a good measure of the environmental conditions in a particular location and can therefore tell us a lot about that environment.

The tusk in the museum collection was discovered during the construction of the Giscome Highway at the Bonnet Pit (Bonnet Hill) in 1946. It was found while workers were shovelling gravel by hand at a depth of 50 feet. The donor of the tusk initially thought that it was fossilized bark—imagine the surprise when it was determined to be an even more interesting find!

Seven years later, in the same gravel left behind by a glacier thousands of years ago, a four-foot tusk was plucked from the conveyor belt on its way to the rock crusher. Unfortunately, though much more of the mammoth’s remains were reported to be present (including whole large bones with points of articulation), any other remains went through the rock crusher and are now part of the roads and highways in the area.

In 1971, the bones and tusks of another mammoth were uncovered during stripping operations at a copper mine on Babine Lake. Many more have been discovered since, everywhere from Vancouver Island to the Thompson Okanagan to the very northern reaches of the province.

There has been debate about what caused the extinction of mammoths and other megafauna species. Hunting by humans, shared resources between animals and humans, shrinking environments, and a drastically changing climate are all believed to be part of the answer to this complex question.

The last surviving mammoths disappeared 3,700 years ago. But if you’re ever driving along that stretch of Giscome Highway, just think—the asphalt your car is travelling on likely contains some remnants of these ice age giants.

The end result of SFU’s research project will be Ph.D. theses and an open-access database and map that researchers and the public can delve into to learn more about these giants from the past. We at The Exploration Place are eagerly awaiting the test results from the tusk in our collection.

If you have any information about or possible remains from a megafauna species, the BC Megafauna Project would love to hear from you. Learn more about the project on Simon Fraser University’s website at sfu.ca/megafauna.html. You can also look forward to learning more about prehistoric flora and fauna in The Exploration Place’s new Palaeo-botanical Hall when we reopen.

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