Places

The discovery of Nova Scotia’s ancient giants

How Cape Breton's Middle River became an unexpected treasure trove of mastodon fossils

  • Jan 03, 2023
  • 624 words
  • 3 minutes
A mastodon skeleton, tusks and other specimens are displayed at the Nova Scotia Museum’s Age of the Mastodon exhibition. (Photo: Victoria Castle, Nova Scotia Museum)
Expand Image

On a day like any other in 1834, a Scot named Alexander “Big Sandy” McRae worked his hayfield along the banks of Cape Breton’s winding Middle River. But the day proved historic when McRae’s horse caught the edge of something in the ground. It was an ancient bone, almost a metre in length and as thick as a telephone pole, from an immense animal the size of which McRae had never known.

Five years earlier, Richard Brown, the first mine manager for the General Mining Association in Cape Breton, wrote in Thomas C. Haliburton’s An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia of a strange sight in Bras d’Or Lake: “Enormous bones, resembling thigh bones, six feet in length, are reported to have been seen lying at the bottom of the lake.”

Earlier still, the Mi’kmaq people, whose traditional homeland (Mi’kma’ki)
encompasses much of the Maritimes, including the briny Bras d’Or Lake (Pitupaq), have told stories for generations of ancient giants that once inhabited the landscape before moose became king.

The site is the location of the first recorded mastodon fossil find in Nova Scotia. (Photo: Amy Tizzard, Nova Scotia Department of Resources and Renewables)
Expand Image

The Middle River bone, a right femur, turned out to be from an American mastodon, a furry elephant-like animal with large tusks that roamed North America between 10,000 and 125,000 years ago. Incredibly, before McRae’s horse tripped over it the bone had likely sat in that exact spot along the riverbank since the animal died, revealed only once the last kilometre-thick glacier raked across the province and etched the Middle River valley in the landscape. 

Tim Fedak works at a dig site located along the banks of Cape Breton's Middle River. (Photo: Christian Laforce, Nova Scotia Musem)
Expand Image

In 1868, the bone was transferred to the care of the Provincial Museum of Nova Scotia (now the Nova Scotia Museum), where it has remained for more than 150 years. Recent analysis of pollen found deep in a crack in the femur suggests it’s around 80,000 years old. That means this mastodon was alive during the last interglacial period of the Pleistocene epoch, happily stomping through a mixed forest, taiga and tundra landscape similar to present-day Labrador.

“We think of them as ice age animals, but the mastodon actually lived in a temperature and an environment surrounded by animals that we would all recognize today, except for the sabre-toothed cats and the giant beavers,” says Tim Fedak, curator of geology at the Nova Scotia Museum.

The femur isn’t the only evidence of mastodons found in Nova Scotia — half a dozen specimens have been reported since, including teeth, bone fragments, tusks and, most significantly, the near-complete skeleton of an adult and the partial skeleton of a juvenile hauled out of a sinkhole at the Milford gypsum quarry in 1991. While scientists know these animals roamed throughout the continent, Nova Scotia’s unique karst topography makes it one of the richest deposits of mastodon fossils. Sinkholes and deep underground channels, which have been forming for hundreds of millions of years, are filled with old sediment — time capsules from ancient epochs. 

Map: Chris Brackley. Data credit: Museum of Natural History (Nova Scotia)
Expand Image

“It really makes sense that these mastodons are being preserved in this karst system. And if it wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have the record of mastodons that we have,” says Fedak.

The near complete skeletons and other assorted bones are now on display at the Age of the Mastodon exhibition at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History and will begin touring across the province this winter. For Fedak, he hopes these bones provide a unique vantage to also consider our currently changing climate.

“What we learn from the age of the mastodons is this context of the natural systems of climate and coastal change that have always been here. Adaptations have always been part of the natural environment,” says Fedak.

Tens of thousands of years later, understanding more about these mighty creatures might help to guide us through the Anthropocene era.

Advertisement

This story is from the January/February 2023 Issue

Related Content

Mapping

Mapping traditional place names in Canada’s North

The staff of the Inuit Heritage Trust is racing across Canada’s North to document traditional Inuit place names before much of that knowledge passes on with the elders who hold it. Canadian Geographic sits down with lead researcher Lynn Peplinski.

  • 1890 words
  • 8 minutes
peatlands of the Hudson Bay Lowlands

Environment

Key Biodiversity Areas bring conservation close to home

One of the most complex challenges for nature conservation comes from a simple question: what must we save?

  • 1075 words
  • 5 minutes
Letterkenny

People & Culture

The funniest places: Why Canadian comedy is obsessed with geography

From Letterkenny to Schitt’s Creek, Canada’s geography has become the laughing stock of television — and that shouldn’t come as a surprise

  • 1583 words
  • 7 minutes
The vibrant buildings of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

Travel

Journey into New Scotland’s past

Heritage sites trade on the past, but in Nova Scotia they’re helping secure and inspire the future.

  • 1871 words
  • 8 minutes