Yukon researchers find new Ice Age fossils

Posted: Wednesday, July 07, 2004

WHITEHORSE, Yukon - Fossils unearthed around the Klondike gold fields have revealed two new species of ice age mammals.

The fossil remains were of a weasel estimated to be about 1.5 million years old and a steppe lemming about 600,000 years old, according to Yukon paleontologist John Storer.

Storer said the finds add to what is known about Beringia, the land bridge between Alaska and Siberia years ago.

"The discovery is important partially because we want to know how things came to be," said Storer. "And partially because it allows us to understand life around us now."

The weasel is about 10 inches, slightly larger than the modern least weasel. It was found downstream from Fort Selkirk, an area that has also produced the remains of 11 other mammals, including one of the world's oldest caribou fossils.

All that is left of the ancient weasel is the teeth and parts of the jaw, Storer said.

The steppe lemming, similar to a vole, is a Eurasian rodent that has not been found before in the Yukon, Storer said.

"As we go further back into fossil records, it is more and more likely that we will find things that are different," Storer said.

The weasel and the lemming will be named after three scientists that have been involved in the Beringia area: Lionel Jackson, a geologist who discovered there were fossils around Fort Selkirk; Richard Morlan, a paleontologist who worked in the Old Crow area; and John Matthews, a subarctic paleontologist who has unearthed the remains of insects and plants.

Storer has been involved in previous discoveries of small mammals in Saskatchewan. He said the new weasel and lemming might draw the attention of other scientists, bringing them and additional grant money to the Yukon.

The new artifacts may later be displayed in the Beringia Centre, said Storer. He plans to write two papers for publication in the journal Paludicola.

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