Changing Animals: Alberta’s Ice Age Megafauna and Wally’s Beach

When St. Mary Reservoir in southern Alberta was filled in the 1950s, no one knew that it submerged an incredible record of life from 13,000 years ago. That record, including footprints of mammoth, camel, and horse, was recently exposed – the internationally significant site is now informing opinions about the role humans played in the extinction of Alberta’s ‘megafauna’.

Rare and information-rich trackways from lumbering mammoth were revealed by scouring winds at St. Mary Reservoir (courtesy of Shayne Tolman).

Rare and information-rich trackways from lumbering mammoth were revealed by scouring winds at St. Mary Reservoir (courtesy of Shayne Tolman).

Wally’s Beach

Shayne Tolman, a teacher from Cardston, is responsible for drawing attention to St. Mary Reservoir and Wally’s Beach, a site complex on an ancient island in St. Mary River that is currently being investigated by Dr. Brian Kooyman and a team from the University of Calgary. Archaeologists have discovered that the menu of some of Alberta’s oldest humans included megafauna like camel, horse, and perhaps mammoth. Over six thousand artifacts indicate that people were hunting big game at a time when these animals were likely struggling to cope with climate change. Did human hunting lead to megafauna extinction or are warming temperatures to blame? Many researchers argue that pre-contact human populations were too small to impact big game while others suggest that targeted hunting patterns among small groups could have big consequences.

Megafauna of Alberta at the end of the last Ice Age (produced by Todd Kristensen)

Megafauna of Alberta at the end of the last Ice Age (produced by Todd Kristensen)

Overkill

Dr. Todd Surovell of the University of Wyoming is a world renowned champion of the ‘overkill’ idea (that human over-hunting led to megafauna extinctions) and he explained his research during a lecture series in Edmonton this year. Dr. Surovell has mapped the global overlap of humans and proboscideans (elephants and elephant-like species), constructed detailed chronologies of megafauna extinction, and run mathematical models to extrapolate the potential impact of early humans in North America. All lines of evidence point to a simple observation: “Outside of Africa, when humans arrive, elephants disappear”.

Mammoth tooth Royal Alberta Museum compressed a

Mammoth tooth from the Royal Alberta Museum. A team of Alberta researchers have recently initiated a project to acquire a dataset of radiocarbon dates of megafauna in the province: any information about mammoth, horse, camel, or ground sloth finds in Alberta would be greatly appreciated.

Mammoth trackways at Wally’s Beach were left by older animals with very few juveniles: perhaps a sign of a stressed population. In this state, Surovell argues that if humans culled 3% of the mammoth population per year, they would’ve been driven to extinction in a few centuries. This could’ve been greatly abbreviated if hunters targeted specific demographics like fat-rich females (which we know First Nations preferred when it came to buffalo hunting).

Climatic Killers

At the other end of the research spectrum, some argue that climate change at the end of the Ice Age (which peaked around 17,000 years ago) is the culprit that leveled many of Alberta’s big animals. Warming temperatures fostered new plant communities, wreaked havoc on mammal gestation rates, and stressed breeding patterns of big game. Most archaeologists have found a middle ground and suggest that humans delivered the final blow to populations that were already weakened by habitat fragmentation and warming temperatures.

Bighorns and Smaller Horns

What can modern wildlife biology tell us about human impacts on animals?  Dr. Marco Festa-Bianchet of the Université de Sherbrooke, Dr. David Coltman of the University of Alberta, and their colleagues have generated data from a continuing 40 year study of bighorns in Alberta’s Rockies. Until 1996, male sheep on Ram Mountain were hunted if their horn curl met a minimum dimension. After that time, regulations tightened, and rams were rarely taken. Hunting stopped in 2011. The regulatory changes offered an intriguing mountain top laboratory to investigate how human selection of specific traits (large horns) influenced animal evolution.

Horn curl (size) is a key factor that determines which bighorns are targeted by hunters.

The research team discovered that rams with the biggest horns were hunted before they achieved reproductive success, which drove long-term declines in horn length. Within three to four generations, human hunting had altered the sheep population’s phenotype (physical expression of a gene). The trend towards shorter horns (a decrease in 30% over 20 years) stopped when trophy hunting sharply dropped in 1996 but horn size has been slow to recover. If other traits, like body mass, are genetically linked to horn length, we may be driving the evolution of sheep and other big game in directions that threaten their survival.

Rams butt heads in Jasper National Park (courtesy of Alberta Culture and Tourism). Horn size influences mate selection: if hunting patterns alter horn size in sheep populations, humans may be influencing larger patterns of mate selection and evolution.

Rams butt heads in Jasper National Park (courtesy of Alberta Culture and Tourism). Horn size influences mate selection: if hunting patterns alter horn size in sheep populations, humans may be influencing larger patterns of mate selection and evolution.

Evolving Landscapes

Archaeological and palaeontological records, such as those from St. Mary Reservoir, should be indications that hunting patterns on a backdrop of climate change can be a powerful one-two punch for some species. Not all of the dynamic changes that occur in the natural world can be controlled by humans, but it is clear from both prehistoric and modern evidence that people in Alberta can have both direct and indirect impacts on the ecosystems around us.

Heritage Art Series

The Heritage Art Series is a collaboration of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum. Each artwork shares an important story about the people of our province: we hope it fosters a greater awareness of our past and instils a deeper respect for it. The artwork below is by Edmonton artist Kelsey Stephenson and is a layered look at landscape change in Alberta. Overlapping shapes represent sheets of ice and huge ‘proglacial’ lakes that once covered what are now Edmonton and Calgary, the urban networks of which are depicted as cut-out layers. Interspersed are the footprints of animals like camels and mammoth from Wally’s Beach.

Icefields by Kelsey Stephenson (reproduced with permission).

Icefields by Kelsey Stephenson (reproduced with permission).

Want to learn more about the Heritage Art Series? Check out other colourful stories and scenes from Alberta’s past here.

A full version of this article will appear in an upcoming issue of Nature Alberta.

Written By: Todd Kristensen (Archaeological Survey) and Chris Jass (Royal Alberta Museum)

5 comments

  1. Thanks to Alberta Archaeology Survey and their invitation to write stories as inspired by the Alberta Heritage Artist Series, Battle River Writers have completed the first Writing Retreat (August 27, 2016), in a designated historical site at Fridhem, a Swedish settlement that started in the late 1800s, south of the Battle River.

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