Fragments found in Yukon 46 years ago was from ancient rhinoceros

Joan Hodgins remembers the “wonderful day” in April 1973 as she hiked up hills and hopped over creeks with half a dozen kids participating in an outdoor program she led near Whitehorse.

Along the way, the 22-year-old educator plopped what looked like tiny bits of teeth and pieces of bone into a couple of plastic bags as her students asked why she was collecting the pieces by an old copper mine near Wolf Creek.

“I said it sure shines nice in the sun and I’m not sure if anything is anything,” Hodgins told them of the fragments in the bags she’d take home to Regina, where they sat here and there, including on her front porch.

In 1998, she decided to give the bags to an employee of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum before he headed to Yukon, where they were kept on a shelf among the territory’s fossil collections.

Now, they have been identified as belonging to a rhinoceros and two species of turtle that paleontologists believe lived about eight million years ago.

“I’m not what you’d call a hoarder but I keep things like that,” Hodgins said from Whitehorse, where she was visiting friends from her home in Eastend, Sask.

A study based on her discovery — identified with the help of Jaelyn Eberle, a curator of fossil vertebrates at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado Boulder — was published Thursday in the journal American Museum Novitates.

“What are the chances?” said Hodgins, who spent three years in Yukon in the 1970s.

She credited Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula, a co-author of the research, for contacting her in 2014 and working to get the fragments identified.

“They could still be sitting in collections and eventually thrown out if nothing was done with them,” Hodgins said. “Because of his curiosity and his commitment to the fossil world he has brought all of this about.”

Zazula said Eberle, an expert on pre-ice-age mammals, was contacted as “probably the best person in the world to work on this.”

She used a tool called a scanning electron microscope to reveal the structure of tooth enamel that would have come from an ancient relative of today’s rhinoceros from an age when the climate was much warmer in Yukon.

“We have literally truckloads of woolly mammoths around here but we never find anything that predates the ice age until this discovery,” Zazula said, adding the find fills a gap in the story of the evolution of life in the Arctic and Yukon.

The rhinoceros would have been a big animal, perhaps three metres long and a couple of metres tall, about as big as today’s black rhino in South Africa, Zazula said.

“We’re not used to seeing such big animals today in North America so it’s pretty neat to envision what life was like back then,” he said, adding the rhino and turtles would have gone extinct about four millions years ago as the weather started to cool and they could no longer feed on leaves from trees.

“It’s really exciting to learn about this time period, especially in the North where there’s a lot of concern about global warming and what are the kind of changes that are going to happen in the landscape.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2019.

— Follow @CamilleBains1 on Twitter.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

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