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A mammoth shift in thinking on the Island’s Ice Age history

New scientific fossil finds in and around Victoria have emerged to create a more complicated vision of Vancouver Island’s Ice Age history than previously thought, a paleontologist said Tuesday.
Veronica Cooper looks at Lyuba, an intact baby woolly mammoth, the star of Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age, running from June 3 to Dec. 31 at the Royal B.C. Museum.

New scientific fossil finds in and around Victoria have emerged to create a more complicated vision of Vancouver Island’s Ice Age history than previously thought, a paleontologist said Tuesday.

Speaking at the advance showing of Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age at the Royal B.C. Museum, Richard Hebda said new finds — such as a mammoth tooth excavated in a Colwood gravel pit — are forcing a re-think about the Island’s prehistory.

For example, investigations around the area where the mammoth tooth was found reveal little evidence of ice cover. So while Victoria was definitely covered with ice, the West Shore remained ice-free during the Ice Age — and that ice-free zone might have extended farther north on Vancouver Island.

“That’s a totally new idea and it will be very controversial when it gets released,” Hebda, the museum’s curator of Earth history, said in an interview Tuesday.

Accepted thinking on Ice Age Vancouver Island has long held that the entire island was covered by ice, with the exception of Brooks Peninsula on the west coast. The peninsula served as an ice-free refuge for plants and animals that then repopulated the Island once the ice retreated, about 12,000 years ago.

“Who knows how far north was free of ice?” Hebda said. “Who knows what we could find out there now?”

Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age is a chance for visitors to check out the world of the Ice Age (12,000 to 2.6 million years ago), and see some of the prehistoric remains and fossils left behind. They can also check out models and displays depicting what scientists have been able to deduce so far. The exhibit has been arranged in partnership with the Field Museum in Chicago.

A star of the Royal B.C. Museum is the preserved remains of an entire baby mammoth. Found frozen in Siberia in 2007 by a reindeer herder, the female has been preserved and named Lyuba, Russian for love.

Lyuba is the only intact baby mammoth in the world and is now the pride of the Shemanovskiy Yamal-Nenets District Museum in northern Siberia, Russia, which agreed to lend the artifact to the Royal B.C. Museum. It is the first time in Canada for Lyuba and only the fourth time the artifact has travelled outside Russia.

The exhibit also reveals glimpses of other prehistoric animals that lived in and around southern Vancouver Island, including the short face bear and the sabre tooth cat. Also illustrated are some key differences between the mastodon, smaller and more southerly in its habitat, and the mammoth, a large creature of the northern steppes.

Fossilized teeth of both creatures have been found on southern Vancouver Island, indicating they likely co-existed side by side, the mastodon chewing on trees and brush and the mammoth eating grass.

Across the Juan de Fuca Strait on the Olympic Peninsula, Hebda said, bones of a mastodon were found with a spear point embedded in a rib, indicating the animals also lived alongside humans who hunted them.

Jack Lohman, chief executive officer of the Royal B.C. Museum, noted Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age, and the appearance of Lyuba, is part of the valuable collaboration between the world’s museums.

The setting for the museum’s mammoth model (named Woolly by staff), first installed in 1979, is being updated to reflect new knowledge of Ice Age Vancouver Island and B.C. as part of the new exhibit, Lohman said.

“It’s now wonderful for us to be able to put that model into a new context.”

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