Mummy ground squirrel tells
of a different Alaska
By NED ROZELL
March 06, 2010
One fall day in Interior Alaska, a lion stalked a ground squirrel
that stood exposed on a hillside like a foot-long sandwich. The
squirrel saw bending blades of grass, squeaked an alarm call,
and then dived into its hole. It curled up in a grassy nest.
A few months later, for reasons unknown, its heart stopped during
A ground squirrel.
Photo courtesy of Ben Gaglioti
The nest and mummified
remains of a ground squirrel that lived
in Alaska about 20,000 years ago.
Photo courtesy of Ben Gaglioti
Twenty thousand years later, Ben Gaglioti is teasing apart the
mummified ground squirrel's cache in an attempt to better reconstruct
what Alaska was like during the days of the mammoth, bison, wild
horse and camel.
Gaglioti is a graduate student with the University of Alaska
Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology and the Water and Environmental
Research Center. He is using tools ranging from tweezers to an
isotope-analyzing device in his attempt to sift Alaska's distant
past from the midden of a ground squirrel that perished during
the last ice age. At that time, from about 14,000 to 45,000 years
ago, North America looked much different than it does today.
For one thing, blue ice one mile thick was pressing down on Toronto
and Chicago. Massive sheets covered much of the continent, but
northern Alaska was a grassland, part of what UAF scientist Dale
Guthrie called the "Mammoth Steppe."
The Mammoth Steppe blanketed the top of the globe from about
France to Whitehorse. It was cold, dry, and featured grasses
and sedges. So rich were the feeding grounds that the ancestors
of today's animals were jumbo versions.
"Sheep, bison, caribou,
and other ruminants on the Mammoth Steppe were giants,"
Guthrie wrote in "Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe."
Not many ground squirrels live in Interior Alaska today, probably
because the current landscape of tundra and boreal forest plants
doesn't provide them enough nutrition. But the squirrels were
here during the ice age. A few of them perished within their
dens, and, through a rare process of being buried and then frozen,
While blasting hillsides of frozen soil with water to reach the
gold-bearing gravel below, miners of Interior Alaska often found
remains of ice age mammals, including a mummified bison that
Guthrie extracted. Miners sometimes told scientists of their
discoveries, prompting researchers such as UAF's Otto Geist to
recover the bones of mammoths and other remains of ancient animals.
Geist and other scientists recovered more than a dozen ancient
ground squirrel nests from Alaska and Yukon Territory. They sent
many of the nests and caches - and sometimes the mummified squirrels
- to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Other researchers dated the remains and found the squirrels had
lived from roughly 40,000 to 8,000 years ago.
Gaglioti, the UAF graduate student, is picking the seeds and
leaves from the ancient squirrel middens and identifying what
plants were here during the last ice age. He's finding plants
that are still in Alaska as well as grasses that grow today on
the Great Plains of the United States and Canada.
"Some interesting northern prairie species are showing up,"
To compare the diets of Mammoth Steppe squirrels to living ground
squirrels, Gaglioti also traveled to the North Slope and dug
up several ground squirrel caches, finding that those squirrels
seem to prefer certain berries and willow leaves. His goal is
to reconstruct Alaska's ice age groundcover.
"We're trying to understand the nature of the Mammoth Steppe
- the habitats here before the extinction of the large mammals
and the arrival of humans into North America," he said.
"As things are changing - like if it's getting dryer and
warmer in modern-day Alaska - we might be able to draw on these
details from the past to better understand climate and vegetation
relationships in Alaska."
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical
Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation
with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell [email@example.com]
is a science writer at the institute.
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