With the recent opening of the Landscapes of Canada Gardens on the museum’s property, visitors to the Canadian Museum of Nature now have the opportunity to explore some of the diverse plant communities that characterize the Great White North. One component of the gardens, though, is seemingly incongruous. While strolling along the pathway, you will eventually encounter three woolly mammoths!
There are no mammoths wandering the Canadian tundra or woodlands today, so it’s understandable to question what these animals are doing in the Landscapes of Canada Gardens. The life-size replicas surround a very special component—in their midst is a narrow bed of plants that represent species that once grew on the mammoth steppe, an Ice Age ecosystem with features of both steppe and tundra environments. One of the best fossil records documenting this prehistoric biome is found in the Yukon, which 25,000 years ago was a very different place.
While most of Canada was under massive ice sheets, parts of Ice Age Yukon remained open terrain comprising a mosaic of grasslands, rocky tundra, and arid scrublands.
Colder, drier, and with deeper soils, the moss carpets that cover much of the present-day tundra were largely absent as were sizeable trees, but numerous graminoids (grasses and sedges) and low-growing forbs (non-graminoid herbaceous plants) were present. Patches of woody shrubs and isolated stands of stunted trees would also have dotted the landscape.
The widespread grasses and nutritious forbs supported herds of large herbivorous mammals such as the Yukon horse (Equus ferus lambei), steppe bison (Bison priscus), and of course the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius).
These hairy elephants in particular played an important role as a keystone species, which is an animal whose behaviour strongly affects the structure of an ecosystem. The mammoth’s foraging activity and movements across the landscape likely contributed to the conditions necessary for maintaining the mammoth steppe as a distinct environment. The woolly mammoth can therefore truly be regarded as a gardener of sorts!
We can thus complete my alteration of a popular English nursery rhyme (“Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”) and answer the question posed in the title of this post:
Mammoth, mammoth, tusked and hairy,
How does your garden grow?
With forbs for lunch, no moss to munch,
And tufted grass my trunk shall mow.
As a natural history museum, we take the long view on things, with our perspectives gazing out from the present to both the past and the future. The mammoth steppe display highlights the fact that ecosystems are dynamic and constantly evolving. Keeping this in mind will help visitors to the Landscapes of Canada Gardens better appreciate our modern countryside in learning about its history and in wondering about its future.