Abstract

Ichnofossils (burrow casts) and fossils from an extinct form of prairie dog, Cynomys niobrarius churcherii, in the Hand Hills of south-central Alberta, have provided an important Late Pleistocene stratigraphic marker. The marker fossils provide relative and chronostratigraphic (radiocarbon) ages for nonglacial, periglacial, glacial, and glaciotectonic events and environments in the region. The high-elevation, hilltop position of the fossil sites (~200 m above the surrounding plains) permits reliable extrapolations of glacial environments to the surrounding region. The burrow casts were preserved by infilling from surrounding and overlying sediments through processes of inwashing and animal activity. Three thousand bones, primarily of the extinct prairie dog Cynomys niobrarius churcherii, were recovered from one site, and several hundred more from other locations. Accelerator radiocarbon dates (AMS) on bone collagen show that the prairie dogs lived in the area from at least

33 000 BP to around 22 000 BP. Prairie dog burrow casts crosscut well-developed periglacial structures and stratigraphically underlie all glacial sediments, indicating that harsh periglacial environments preceded their colonization and that the region was later submerged by Laurentide ice. Deformed sediments, 0.5 to 1.5 m thick, were found throughout the upland. The products of deformation overlie, truncate, and (or) incorporate burrow casts, indicating that only limited erosion and glacial deformation occurred during glaciation. Reconstructed ice sheet profiles show a northwest-southeast flow that could only have been achieved by coalescent Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets. This demonstrates that a theoretical "ice-free corridor" that some think persisted between the ice sheets during the Late Wisconsin "maximum," did not exist.

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