Mysterious Arctic skull raises questions

From: http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Science/2006/05/30/1606814-cp.html

By JOHN THOMPSON

A mysterious skull (shown) discovered on the edge of the Arctic Circle has sparked interest in what creatures roamed Baffin Island in the distant past, and what life a warming climate may support in the future. (CP/HO/Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts)ç

IQALUIT, Nunavut (CP) - A mysterious skull discovered on the edge of the Arctic Circle has sparked interest in what creatures roamed Baffin Island in the distant past, and what life a warming climate may support in the future.

Andrew Dialla, a resident of Pangnirtung, Nunavut, says he found the skull protruding from the frozen tundra during a walk near the shore with his daughter about a month ago.

The horned skull is about the size of a man's fist. It resembles a baby caribou skull, except at that age, a caribou wouldn't have antlers, researchers and elders have pointed out.

Its discovery has caused a stir in Canada's Eastern Arctic. Pictures of the skull, sent over e-mail, have prompted residents to speculate whether the skull might belong to a long-extinct deer or sheep that inhabited the land millions of years ago when the climate was much warmer.

Meanwhile, Dialla is considering shipping the skull south to be examined by Richard Harrington, a distinguished retired paleontologist from Ottawa's Museum of Nature.

Harrington has spent over a decade helping to excavate an ancient beaver pond on Ellesmere Island in Canada's High Arctic. That site, estimated to be four million years old, contained the remains of a now-extinct species of beaver, as well as vanished species of deer, horses, wolverines and bears.

This April, researchers announced another big discovery on Ellesmere Island - a strange creature, part fish and part alligator, which could have been the first to crawl from the oceans to shore 375 million years ago.

But little similar research has been conducted in the region where Dialla's mystery skull was unearthed, according to Mary Ellen Thomas, manager of the Nunavut Research Institute.

Several years ago, a fossilized stump of a tree did turn up near Pangnirtung, well above the tree-line, she said.

She hopes the buzz surrounding the skull could lead to more finds.

"This will perhaps interest people in south Baffin. That's good."

One thing Thomas and her colleagues do find themselves doing is fielding many phone calls from Arctic inhabitants who have spotted unfamiliar species of birds and insects such as wasps, previously unknown so far north.

Warm weather that researchers link to climate change continues to break records in the Arctic as more-southern species venture farther north.