Who doesn’t love impressive fossils.
For me, they conjure worlds that are our own but totally unlike the one we know.
So, it was exciting news that the Bulkley Valley Museum had acquired, on loan from the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, a femur, two vertebrae and a tusk fragment from an extinct mammoth.
Even more exciting was that these bones were found near Babine Lake.
What was this area like 38,000 years ago. In geological terms, that is a miniscule period of time on a planet that has been around for 4.5 billion.
In human terms it is still a significant amount of time. Homo sapiens emerged from the human genus only 300,000 years ago, so it’s approximately 12.6 per cent of our history.
At the time this mammoth roamed the area, we had spread throughout Africa, southern Asia and as far as Australia, but were still at least 23,000 years from starting to populate the Americas.
It was around this time Neanderthals disappeared.
Geographically, this area would have been very different from what we know now as it was prior to the latest period of glaciation that sculpted the mountains and valleys as we see them today.
When we say the bones were found near Babine Lake, it is easy to conjure mammoths roaming along the shores, but the lake didn’t exist back then, it was formed by the latest glaciation period 30,000 to 10,000 years ago.
The other fascinating thing that these bones bring to mind is the incredible advances we have made in DNA science.
Scientists now believe some extinct species, could be brought back using genome sequencing, embryo creation and implantation in a surrogate mother from a closely related species.
Mammoths are one of the better candidates because their extinction is relatively recent (DNA degrades over time), there are plenty of sample fragments to draw from and they have a living close relative (elephants).
Of course, one of the most compelling allures for such a project is just whether we can. It would certainly be very cool to see these majestic beasts in real life, but the big question remains whether we should.
The rationalization runs along the lines of restoring species could restore former ecosystems.
But that also brings the danger that a reintroduced species could disrupt current ecosystems.
Part of the allure could also be human guilt. Since we are responsible for many of the more recent extinctions, maybe we feel like we owe it to them, which while completely irrational is very human indeed.
I am not convinced it’s a good idea, but it’s probably too compelling not to at least try.
I do want to really congratulate curator Kira Westby and the museum board for the admirable accomplishment of acquiring this exhibit.
It’s a great addition to the collection for the next year.