RECOVERY OF VERTEBRATE SPECIMENS FROM YUKON ICEFIELDS

Joseph A. Cook
Gordon H. Jarrell




ABSTRACT

The 1990s have been the warmest decade on record, including nine of the ten hottest years ever. This is causing substantial shrinkage of perennial alpine snowfields, and a treasure trove of well- preserved artifacts and ancient biological specimens has appeared at the base of these thawing "freezers". The discovery in 1997 of concentrations of mammals and birds from the extensive snowfields of southern Yukon Territory has lead to an international effort to preserve and investigate the frozen material. The University of Alaska Museum, with support of the National Science Foundation, is preserving frozen specimens from this discovery. This material that has excellent potential for investigations of environmental, biological and cultural change spanning thousands of years.

The exceptional preservation environment of alpine ice patches has provided an opportunity to archive a substantial series of frozen mammals from the past 9,000 years. This amount of frozen material from ancient mammals is unavailable in any other research collection worldwide. The collection is being incorporated into the Alaska Frozen Tissue Collection (>25,000 mammals), the third largest tissue collection of wild mammals in the Western Hemisphere. By properly archiving the material, we can provide substantial new material for investigations of ancient DNA or proteins, co-evolution of parasites or diseases and their hosts through time, and the condition of paleo-environments (including reconstructing the record of climate change in the southern Yukon). These investigations are essential as scientists attempt to help society understand the extent and impact of global warming.

A number of complimentary investigations also are likely. The unprecedented recovery of fragments of a wooden dart, arrow shafts, and stone points provides one of the first opportunities in the Yukon for the study of this little known component of human technology. Large number of these sites occur within the proposed Kusawa Lake Park. Preliminary reconnaissance of 41 sites suggests that a wealth of frozen materials will continue to thaw (and potentially be lost without preservation) over the next few years due to continued environmental warming.


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