Rhinos, turtles once roamed Yukon, according to study based on chance fossil discovery

Millions of years ago, Yukon was home to rhinoceroses, turtles and tortoises, suggesting the climate was far different then than it is now, according to a co-author of a study released Thursday.

“It was probably much more like parts of the southern United States, where you have swamps throughout the whole year that probably didn’t freeze over,” said Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for the Yukon government.

It was still significantly darker during the winter, “so that presents a really interesting situation for these animals, as well.”

The study was published in the journal American Museum Novitates. The discovery behind it was made in part by a woman from Saskatchewan who stumbled across several fossils in Whitehorse in 1973.

Joan Hodgins, a then-22-year-old teacher at an organization for young offenders, took her students on a hike.

Joan Hodgins found several fossils in Whitehorse in 1973. (Steve Silva/CBC)

They came across a large pile of materials excavated from the former Whitehorse Copper Mine.

“It was so inviting for us to just climb up,” Hodgins recounted.

The fossils were “interesting, nice to look at, wonderful to feel,” she said.

Hodgins took the fossils with her to Saskatchewan and put them “jam cans”, where they stayed for, “like, we’re talking decades.”

Around the late 90s, a fellow colleague at a museum she worked at was transferred to Yukon. She gave him part of her collection for him to then give to the territorial government.

The fossils collected by Joan Hodgins include fragments of rhinoceros tooth enamel (left), turtle and tortoise shells (middle), northern pike (top-right), and an unidentified animal (bottom-left). (Steve Silva/CBC)

The fossils are estimated to be about eight million years old, Zazula.

They consist of fragments of rhinoceros tooth enamel and shells of turtles and tortoises.

Jaelyn Eberle, a Canadian paleontologist at the University of Colorado, was sent some of the fossils to examine, Zazula said.

The tortoises in question were described as “huge,” similar to Galápagos tortoises.

The rhinos were probably about two metres tall and three metres long, Zazula said, “so these are one of the biggest animals that are living in North America at the time.”

Grant Zazula, a palaeontologist for the Yukon government, holds up two fossils of rhinoceros tooth enamel. (Steve Silva/CBC)

He said he and his colleagues have visited the site of the fossils several times, without similarly fruitful results, and they plan to spend more time there in the hope of unearthing more.

The discovery by Hodgins is a good example of how anyone can help advance research — they just need to speak up if they find something of interest, Zazula said.

Hodgins said if she stumbles across a similar find again, she’ll notify the proper experts rather than handle the fossils herself.

Regardless, the 69-year-old said she’s pleased to have contributed to a discovery of this kind.

“I’m just ecstatic. I’m excited. I’m… wow.”

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