During the last ice age, herds of mammoths lived on what is now southeastern Vancouver Island. Not only did mammoths live there but also American mastodons, and kinds of horses, muskoxen and bison that are now extinct.
The earliest recorded discoveries were fragmentary molar teeth of the gigantic imperial mammoth collected by Captain Devereux from James Island in 1985 and by Justice Drake from Cordova Bay in 1898. Most of the 18 fossils of ice age mammals known from Vancouver Island have come from gravel pits in the Saanich Peninsula. Exceptions are mastodon teeth from the Shawnigan Lake and Courtenay area, and mammoth specimens from near Courtenay and Sooke.
Few people realize that a dozen or more fossils, including remains of imperial and Columbian mammoths and bison have been found between the mainland and Vancouver Island. In addition to James Island, such fossils are known from Whidbey. Sucia, Orcas, Smith and Protection islands. Although it is difficult to say how old the fossils are, geological evidence gathered from the sequence of sediments at gravel pits on the Saanich Peninsula from which many of the specimens’ came, indicates that the animals died before the peak of the last glaciation some 20.000 years ago.
The imperial mammoth is the largest species of mammoth known from North America — about 12 feet in height according to estimates made from well preserved, restored skeletons. It may have had some hair, but probably a good deal less than the woolly mammoths that roamed the tundra areas of Eurasia and North America and the Columbian mammoths which had evidently adapted to life on cool North American grasslands.
The mastodon is a more primitive type of elephant than the mammoth It was squatter than the imperial mammoth. Its teeth with typical paired cusps were adapted to browsing in contrast to the compressed enamel plates in the teeth of mammoths which were adapted to grazing. Well preserved specimens of American mastodons indicate that they lived mainly in open spruce woodlands or spruce forests where they fed on tender spruce twigs, and that they had coats of reddish brown hair. Their fossils are rare in western Canada, but more than 60 specimens are known from southern Ontario.
One of the most exciting fossil finds on Vancouver Island is part of a skull of an extinct muskox which came from gravels in the lower part of Butler Brothers gravel pit on the Saanich Peninsula. It was donated to the British Columbia provincial museum in 1969.
Mammoths and muskoxen seem to have lived together on southeastern Vancouver Island for their fossils have been found in the same gravel layers But how did a muskox get to the Island? How did the mammoths, mastodons and other ice age animals reach the Island?
Likely some of the ‘warmer-adapted species such as the imperial mammoth and American mastodon could have crossed large flood plains that filled the Strait of Georgia during the Olympia Interglaciation (compared to glacial phases, a relatively warm interval in southern British Columbia which lasted from more than 50.000 years ago to sometime after 20.000 years ago). Land connections between the mainland and southeastern Vancouver Island also could have existed during glacial maxima of the late ice age according to knowledge of dropping sea levels during those periods and the present depth of the waters between the two places.
For, as great quantities of moisture were drawn from the sea and dropped as snow on the land (where it was locked up in the form of vast continental ice sheets), sea level dropped correspondingly exposing land on the shallower parts of the continental shelves. Worldwide sea levels are estimated to have been as much as 520 feet lower during the peak of the second last glaciation and 390 feet lower during the peak of the last glaciation about 20,000 years ago. During glacial maxima a land corridor between Port Angeles and Victoria could have offered a suitable migratory route for ice age land animals.
Another interesting question is: “How and when did the mammals that are now living on Vancouver Island get there?” Endemic species or subspecies (ones that are restricted to the Island ) are particularly important in trying to solve this problem. They imply migration to the Island tens to hundreds of thousands of years ago, and subsequent isolation and differentiation from their mainland ancestors.
The Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis), the only mammalian species endemic to the Island, differs from North American hoary marmots in its dark brown color and small size. Presumably it evolved from paler hoary marmots of the mainland which arrived on Vancouver Island during a relatively cold (possibly the second last) glacial phase. This indicated by its adaptation to alpine and high subalpine meadows.
Of 14 endemic mammalian subspecies, possibly the navigator shrew and the mink could have crossed water to reach the Island. Certainly the beaver and otter, two subspecies that are common to the mainland and Island, are capable of swimming across from the mainland. There is proof of otters swimming from Vancouver to Victoria, for a semi-tame pair taken from Victoria harbor to Stanley Park Zoo in Vancouver escaped. Three weeks later they were back in their old haunts in Victoria!
Wolves and wolverines might have crossed to the Island over sea ice during a glacial phase, for their relatives in the Canadian Arctic Islands cross readily between islands in this way. But it is considered that most of the endemic subspecies reached Vancouver Island by land near the peak of the last glaciation, or perhaps somewhat earlier across the Strait of Georgia flood plains.
Hopefully we will learn more about the variety of ice age mammals of Vancouver Island and their environments as time proceeds and more fossils are collected. Meanwhile, it is clear that the endemic mammals deserve careful study, and we must have the greatest respect for the rare, chocolate brown marmot, the symbolic mammalian species of this beautiful Island.