#Sciencedeskdigs: Ancient Bison Skull

light brown horn and frontside of partial skull of an ancient bison

NPS Photo/M.Reed

This week on #sciencedeskdigs we went literal. We found an object that was dug up and put on a scientist’s desk. Chief Wildlife Biologist, Glenn Plumb shares how this ancient bison skull paints a story of what the American West looked like 10,000 years ago and how it relates to the work he does for the National Park Service. Read on to hear his amazing story.

What is it?
“It’s a mineralized Bison antiquus skull - an animal that likely lived 10,000-14,000 years ago along the ancient North Platte River drainage. This is the ancient relative of modern Bison bison - the bison we see in parks today. At least I am 99% sure it is! The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has agreed to help verify the species and age. Last year, a friend of mine was using a backhoe to dig a utility trench near Torrington in Eastern Wyoming, north of the North Platte River and came across a gravelly muddy layer of earth about 8 feet deep. Then he saw this skull in the backhoe bucket and took it home and put it away in his barn. It is bigger than a typical modern bison, an adult Bison antiquus could be up to 3,500 pounds, 7-8 feet tall, 15 feet long, with horns 3 feet long tip to tip! This particular animal may have shared its environment with giant sloths, short-faced bears, giant tortoises, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, camels, pronghorn, mammoths and mastadon, a giant armadillo like Glypotherium, and giant beavers!
backside of a light brown horn and partial skull of an ancient bison

NPS Photo/ M.Reed

This particular skull specimen is very intriguing because the fine bone structures of the sinuses, orbital cavity, and brain cavity are so well preserved. There are also a pattern of what appears to be small round compressions and associated compression cracks. It is very intriguing to consider that they could be predation or scavenging bite marks of a very strong-jawed animal - perhaps a saber-tooth tiger or short-faced bear! At that time, as now, few wild animals were capable of biting hard enough to crack the heaviest part of a bison skull!

Bison, in any time, hold a special place for me because not only are bison an important symbol to the National Park Service (one stands proudly in the center of the NPS logo) but my job is to combine science and stewardship to protect bison and their ecology, “unimpaired for future generations!” Understanding the biodiversity that existed thousands of years ago in this area of the United States helps me better understand and appreciate the wildlife that now live in and around our national parks.”
porous brain cavity of ancient bison skull

NPS Photo/M.Reed

Last updated: March 8, 2018