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Talking fossils with Paleontologist, Dr Grant Zazula

This is a guest post by Future Science Leader, Olivia Lim.

Have you ever wondered what the difference between a mammoth and a mastodon is? Or perhaps, you might even be wondering what a mastodon is in the first place?

The answers to these questions, and many more like them, can be found in the field of Paleontology, the scientific study of fossils and the history of life.

Set up in the Search: Sarah Stern Gallery, visiting paleontologist Dr Grant Zazula, manager of the Yukon Government Palaeontology Program, gave Science World’s visitors a chance to both see some amazing artifacts and learn more about the world these animals existed in.

The visiting exhibit included many spectacular fossils of ice age mammals ranging from the tiny skull of an arctic ground squirrel to the giant rib of a woolly mammoth. I quickly learned that ice age fauna was a lot more diverse than I had imagined it to be. Beyond woolly mammoths and bison, camels and lions used to exist in North America too.

I had the opportunity to talk with Dr Zazula and gain some insight into his field and work as a paleontologist.

Although he originally started in Anthropology, through a combination of events Grant found his interests shifting towards prehistoric animals and ecologies rather than prehistoric humans. After finishing his PhD in Biological Sciences, he accepted the position of Yukon Paleontologist and began working there. In the summer, he and his team focus on collecting new fossils and preserving them for research. This involves trips to remote areas, lots of camping, and plenty of good stories, including hunting porcupines and surprise overnight flash floods! The majority of the specimens they uncover are found by miners accidentally, from industry giants to small one-man operations, who alert the paleontologists of the fossil’s location. During winter the focus shifts to studying the fossils found during the summer and writing and publishing scientific papers. With advancements in other scientific fields, especially in genetics, researchers can now gain a lot more data from the fossils they find and use the data to slowly fill in the pieces of the massive jigsaw puzzle that depicts prehistoric life.

While many questions are being answered, there are still many mysteries that remain. Why are these amazing mammals no longer with us today? There are many theories, but no one really knows for sure. Maybe you might be the paleontologist that fills in the next big piece of the puzzle.