Found skull believed to be ancient bison's

Sunday, February 9, 2003

ST. CHARLES, Mo. -- Mary Ball was searching for arrow heads along the Missouri River in St. Charles County last week. What she discovered was much more historic.

Ball, 35, found a skull that experts believe belonged to a bison that died about 10,000 years ago, during the ice age

Ball and a friend, Tim Carter, 47, both of O'Fallon, were walking along a sandbar near the Weldon Spring Wildlife Area, when Ball spotted a brown-colored skull with thick horns extending from each side.

"I thought it was like a bull's head," Ball said. She and Carter decided to lug the mud-filled cranium back to shore. After cleaning it gently with toothbrushes, they took the 40-pound skull to the Missouri Department of Conservation office Monday.

"We made arrangements for her to come in, and, holy cow, what a shocker," natural history biologist Mike Arduser said. "She brought this monster skull in, laid it on the table, and in a few minutes, the whole office was coming in." Arduser's guess was that the skull belonged to an extinct, prehistoric form of bison.

'Looks like a baby'

Ball's excitement grew when Arduser placed a modern bison skull next to it. "Modern-day bison looks like a baby compared to this thing," she said.

On Wednesday, Northwest Missouri State University biology professor David Easterla examined the skull and confirmed Arduser's guess. He said the skull appeared to be from a predecessor to the modern bison known as Bison antiquus, which was known to have longer and differently shaped horns and a slightly larger body. He said Bison antiquus became extinct probably 9,000 to 11,000 years ago. Easterla is working on a book about the ice age and is involved with the university's collection of bones from that era.

The measurements on the skull -- 34 inches from horn tip to horn tip -- fit Bison antiquus. By comparison, modern bison would measure about 24 inches.

Easterla said the skull probably belonged to a male bull.

Easterla and University of Missouri-Columbia anthropology professor R. Lee Lyman said low river levels might lead to more discoveries of ice age fossils. Ball said the sand bar where she found the skull usually is surrounded by water.

Ice age disappearances

The Pleistocene Epoch, commonly referred to as the ice age, started about 2 million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago. With its end, so called "megafauna" such as mammoths, mastodons, beavers the size of black bears and giant ground sloths disappeared.

Even though the bones may not be as old as those of the dinosaurs, which roamed the earth millions of years earlier, Easterla said scientists are interested in ice age remains because they would like to know what caused the changes in these animals and why the ice age ended.

Easterla encouraged anyone who finds fossils to contact a professional as the bones can decay and crumble even if they appear to be mineralized.

Ball took the skull to Timberland High School, where her daughter Crystal, 17, is a junior. But aside from that, she said she wasn't sure what she would do with it.

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