Greatly increased our knowledge of the mammals that lived in the Canadian North during the last ice age.
"Only by looking at the many facets of a subject can you hope to see it in proper perspective, and if the evidence from different disciplines does not jibe, then you can question your results and pare closer to the truth."
Dick Harington thinks paleontology is probably the most interesting career anyone could have. And he should know, because he tried several before finally becoming a paleontologist.
When he was young, he didn't know what he wanted to do when he grew up, other than be out in the world. He started university in an arts program and spent his summers in officer training in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve. However, he discovered himself becoming more interested in his geologist roommate's work than his own. And then one day while working on an essay in the library, he glanced at a row of books on the nearby shelves. One of them caught his attention: A History of Land Mammals in the Western Hemisphere, by W.B. Scott. He pulled it down and spent the rest of the day reading it.
After completing a Bachelor of Arts specializing in philosophy, he switched to science, and got a Bachelor of Science specializing in physical geography and zoology. This led to a year-long job in 1957 as a weather observer on Ellesmere Island, only a few hundred kilometers from the North Pole. Other scientists, including earth scientists, botanists, glaciologists, limnologists, as well as fisheries and muskox biologists were stationed at the site, and in his spare time Harington was allowed to work with them all.
He found muskoxen to be particularly interesting. He wondered how they had become adapted to their rigorous arctic environment and who their ancestors were. He returned to university for further study, receiving his master's degree in zoology and physical geography in 1961. His thesis is titled "History, Distribution and Ecology of Muskoxen." He found that the muskoxen are descendents of a sheep-like animal that lived in Asia several million years ago. When the last ice age came, they spread into the northern tundra, where they live today.
This work led to five years as a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, traveling the north studying the denning ecology and biology of polar bears. He spent much of his time with Inuit, and gained a great deal of respect for them. He also grew to respect and admire the polar bear. Because of the poor animal drugging technology available at that time, Harington had to occasionally kill a polar bear to conduct his research. He found this distasteful, and his interests turned to the study of the fossilized remains of long-dead northern animals.
In 1965 he took a job at the National Museum (now the Canadian Museum of Nature) as the Curator of Quaternary Zoology. Quaternary zoology is the study of ice-age animals, and this appealed immensely to Harington. For most of the next 30 years, he spent his summers in the Yukon and Nunavut hunting fossils and his winters in Ottawa at the museum cataloguing his finds and publishing the results. With the help of the people living in the north, he collected about 40,000 specimens. It was during this time that he received his doctorate, specializing in vertebrate paleontology.
His fossil discoveries include: Yukon ice age (2 million to 10,000 years ago) mammals such as woolly mammoths, American lions, scimitar cats, western camels, giant beavers and extinct forms of muskoxen, as well as evidence for the earliest humans in Canada; a unique arctic Pliocene (about 4 million years old) fauna including three-toed horses, new kinds of deerlet, shrew, and badger, as well as ancestors of modern black bears and wolverines from an ancient beaver pond site on Ellesmere Island; and many fishes and marine mammals of Champlain Sea age (about 11,000 years old) from the St. Lawrence Lowland of Ontario and Québec.
Dick Harington with a steppe bison skull collected on Old Crow River, Yukon.Photo: Richard Harrington (Toronto)
Harington officially retired from his long and varied career in 1998, but still works at the Canadian Museum of Nature in his role as Curator Emeritus of Quaternary Zoology and as Research Associate. He once said that students seem to fall into two groups: those that are "arrows" and those that are "shotguns". The arrows know early on what they want to be and move directly toward their goal. The shotguns, however, don't know what they want to do, and either drift interminably or want to do everything at once. Harington is one of the shotguns, not discovering his calling until his early thirties. He probably wouldn't have it any other way.
Author: Jeff Schering
Labreche, Julianne. (October-November 1980). The man who braved polar bears in their dens. Canadian Geographic, 39-41.
Pringle, Heather. (March-April 1999)Ice-age sleuth. (includes related article on Beringia). Canadian Geographic, 36-39.
Photo credit: University of Alberta Faculty of Science. (headshot)
Homepage of the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre.
Research notes written by Dr. Harington for the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre.
Homepage of the Canadian Museum of Nature.
Dick Harington's Order of Canada award on the Governor General's page.