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Ancient bison remains found near Whitehorse

04/30/2012 05:05 EDT | Updated 06/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Two very rare discoveries could shed light on the mystery of prehistoric bison in Yukon. Both a full bison skeleton and partial remains were found on two separate occasions near Whitehorse last week.

Craig Duncan was trenching a power line to a new house in the Porter Creek neighbourhood of Whitehorse when he came across something unusual.

"I stumbled across a bone and so we decided to look further and found quite a bit," said Duncan.

The full skeleton was about six feet underground. Duncan informed the Yukon Government’s paleontologists and archeologists and within hours, the digging was underway.

"They got pretty excited. It was pretty funny — they just basically all came running," said Duncan.

Also last week, a family was skiing on Fish Lake, about 15 kilometres from Whitehorse, when they came across more bison remains. The remains were sticking out of the ice on the lake.

Bones could unlock Yukon bison history

Both unusual finds have the potential to help explain what happened to bison after the ice age and before the species disappeared about 400 years ago. The bison seen in the territory today were re-introduced about 40 years ago.

Grant Zazula, a paleontologist with the Yukon government, said that during the ice age, bison were likely the most abundant large animal in the territory. But the animals weren’t in southern Yukon because it was covered in ice at that time.

Zazula said questions remain as to what happened to the bison after that.

"Trying to understand their history after the ice age, understanding how they adapted to climate change, human hunting —trying to figure that out is a big question in paleontology and archeology," he said.

The bones are also unusual because they’re a near-complete skeleton — something that has never before been discovered in the area.

Zazula said the ground at Duncan’s house looks like an ancient lake bottom.

"We're finding little shells of snails and what not. And if I took a guess, it was probably an animal on the ice that probably fell through," he said.

It’s not yet known how old the bison is, but Zazula is guessing that it is thousands of years old.

The paleontologists will do radio carbon dating on the bones to see how old it is. They will then do DNA tests to try to find out where the bison fits in with their understanding of prehistoric bison populations in Yukon.

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