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Bison Latifrons


Seven years ago today, ND paleontologist John Hoganson received a telephone call from Kent Pelton, a teacher at Watford City High School. While fishing on Lake Sakakawea near New Town, Pelton had discovered what he thought were two mammoth tusks. Hoganson was excited, because very few remains of mammoths have ever been discovered here.

A few days later, he traveled to Watford City to take a look. Pelton was storing the fossils in the school’s shop room, and when Hoganson walked in, he was at first confused by what he found. Nearby, he spotted a large bison skull that Pelton had also collected, and after a few minutes, Hoganson put two and two together. He realized the long curved pieces weren’t tusks; they were horn cores of a giant extinct ice age mammal called Bison latifrons.

Hoganson says this was an even more exciting and scientifically important discovery than finding the remains of a mammoth. Prior to this, only one other specimen of this type of bison had been found in ND; in 1918, a horn core had been found near Independence School on the Fort Berthold Reservation.

Hoganson, Pelton and several others immediately went by boat to the site where the bison bones had been found. There, Hoganson located several more pieces of the skull and some other bone fragments.

The remains were on land administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers within the borders of the Fort Berthold Reservation. After several months of discussion, it was decided the Corps of Engineers would provide the funding to restore the bison skull for exhibit at the State Heritage Center in Bismarck. They also agreed to make several cast replicas for the Three Tribes Museum in New Town, the new Long X Visitors Center in Watford City, the Corps’ Riverdale office, the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, and another is on display at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Center near Williston.

Tests revealed Pelton’s specimen was more than 47,500 years old. The animal was about 25-50% larger than modern-day bison, and its horns were dramatically different. Whereas today’s bison has a horn-span of about two feet, the latifrons – or “longhorn” – has a span of up to 7 feet.

Remains of the longhorn bison have been found primarily up and down the central corridor of the country, but it has also been discovered in Florida, the La Brea tar pits of California, the western mountain ranges and a few other spots. The specimen from North Dakota is farther north than any other found in the U.S., but two have also been found northwest of us in Canada.

Hoganson says the longhorn bison lived a bit differently than today’s bison; it appears it wasn’t as social. Rather than traveling in herds, the latifrons’ habits more closely resembled those of the modern-day moose, which travels alone or in small groups. Most paleontologists also believe longhorn bison were browser-grazers that lived in woodlands or in forest openings, rather than on open grasslands.

The first ice age mammal to be discovered in the state was a mammoth found on a ridge that once existed as the beach of Lake Agassiz; a geologist named Warren Upham discovered it in Cass County in 1895 while mapping Agassiz’s former boundaries. While discoveries of ice age mammals have been relatively scarce in ND, paleontologists have also found remains of staghorn moose, mastodons, horses, and the giant ground sloth, like the one in the movie “Ice Age.”

Source: John W. Hoganson, “Occurrence of the Giant Ice Age Bison, Bison latifrons, in North Dakota,” North Dakota Geological Survey Newsletter, Vol. 29, No. 2

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm