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Ice age fossils and their lessons, from the Royal B.C. Museum

07/05/2015 01:15 EDT | Updated 07/05/2016 05:59 EDT
Discovering new fossils in British Columbia is sometimes as easy as taking a walk along the beach, said Richard Hebda, curator of botany and earth science at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.

"As amazing as it may seem, every once in a while, bones come tumbling out of the cliff face onto the beach, and people find them and bring them in."

Many of the fossils come from Island View beach, just north of Victoria on the Saanich peninsula, and hint at what kind of creatures roamed British Columbia 20,000 to 22,000 years ago.

Some bones date as far back as 80,000 years, he said.  

The collection includes mammoth teeth the size of your head, the base of horns from giant extinct bison that could extend as far as one metre on each side, and fragments of the lower arm of a short-faced bear, quite possibly one of the biggest mammalian carnivores in the earth's history.

Hebda said there's evidence the short-faced bear survived the ice age and co-existed with humans, at least for a time. 

Lessons to learn

Not only are these fossils marvellous historical curiosities, Hebda said, they also offer some lessons for today.

First, Hebda said ice age bones are turning up in unexpected places, particularly as people dig reservoirs and irrigation canals.

"We want people if they find anything interesting and bone-like to bring it into their local museum so we can get it into the collection, because this is a vision of the world that's gone."

Second, these fossils tell a cautionary tale about the limits of adaptation. 

"When climates change rapidly, so rapidly that it's within the life span of some of these organisms, they cannot adapt."

"All of these things in our area went extinct, most of them in that very short window after the ice age and before we enter our modern climate."

"When the climate changes quickly and significantly ... extinction must follow, especially if there are other stresses such as human activity."

To hear the full interview with Richard Hebda, listen to the audio labelled: Royal BC Museum: ice age.

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