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Scientists studying ancient bison horns hope to unlock ice-age mysteries

A team from Alaska recently worked on the Yukon’s collection of steppe bison horn sheaths
Bison horns lay on a table ready to be examined. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

The smell hits you as soon as you open the door to the paleontology lab, tucked away in an inconspicuous building in Whitehorse’s industrial area.

It’s an acrid but not unbearable sort of scent, one that sticks to your hair and shirt and in your nostrils long after you’ve left the area — a bit like singed hair, a bit like melting solder.

Turns out that drilling and cutting into ancient bison horns doesn’t produce the most alluring of perfumes, but what the small research team from Alaska is losing in the olfactory department, it’s hoping to make up a thousand-fold in the wealth of knowledge to be gained.

Hailing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), the three-person team, led by professor Matthew Wooller, was in Whitehorse earlier this week to take advantage of the Yukon government’s extensive collection of steppe bison horn sheaths — more than 500 specimens in total from the long-extinct creatures.

They’re hoping that the roughly 100 samples they collected will help paint a fuller picture of how members of the ice-age species lived and died, and, by extension, what the climate and conditions were like during their lifespans.

“We’re doing research in the lab on mammoth, and mammoth went extinct at roughly the same time (as steppe bison), people were coming across the land bridge at about the same time, climate was changing at about the same time and things were going extinct very rapidly at about the same time as well, so it’s a real detective story,” Wooller told the News during a visit to the lab Oct. 23.

“(Steppe bison) were here for a long time but they kind of waxed and waned and then they went extinct, so part of our question is, why? Why is that? So that’s what we’re trying to figure out, partly.”

Studying bison horn sheaths is particularly advantageous compared to, say, studying the bones of an ancient horse that lived at the same time, because horns are a little bit like trees, explained PhD student Juliette Funck — they grow a new, distinct ring every year. Each ring can be separately tested and offer clues to what exactly was going on with the creature it belonged to in that timeframe.

“We have the lifelong record of the chemistry or the life of an individual in the horn,” Funck said. “We study the chemical signatures, particularly the stable isotopes and so we can look at these layers and determine certain types of events, like if they were starving or when they were weaned and kind of the yearly cycles. So we’re hoping because there’s such a big collection here, we can really get a nice population size-look at how individuals were living, and we’re going to carbon-date them so we get this idea of how populations lived through time and through the last glacial period.”

Both Wooller and Funck described the Yukon’s collection of fossilized steppe bison horns as unique in the world, both in terms of the sheer number of specimens and how well-preserved many of them are. The number, in particular, is especially helpful when it comes to projects that involve “destructive” analysis, they said, and ones trying to collect population-wide data.

Yukon government paleontologist Grant Zazula, a longtime friend and colleague of Wooller’s, said that the quality and size of the collection, which has attracted attention from institutions around the world, can be attributed to permafrost and the good working relationship with the local gold mining community and Yukon First Nations.

“It enables us to be able to do all this work on the land and collect all these fossils. Without having those good working relationships, none of these fossils would be available for scientists to work on,” he said.

In the summer, Zazula said, his team sets up a camp in Dawson City, and his assistants essentially drive around all day visiting gold miners to see what, in the process of their work, they’re pulling out of the ground. Some miners have a collection of fossils waiting for the assistants to pick up, he said, and they “basically collect everything they can get.”

“Sometimes it seems like we’re collecting and collecting and collecting for no particular reason, but then problems like this come up and you go, ‘Oh, we have the specimens and collections to actually investigate this problem,’” he said. “There’s a reason why you accumulate all these fossils — because they can be used in big projects like this, so it’s a good reminder when we have colleagues like this working on the collections. There is a good practical reason why we put all this effort in the summer into collecting it all and maintaining it all.”

And while research projects like the one the UAF team is undertaking offer glimpses into the past, they can also provide important hints about what’s to come.

“One of the interesting parts with looking at the ice age world and ice age mammals is, we have their direct relatives living here today and so if we can tease apart information about how they were responding to environmental change in the past, it can give us a good idea in terms of what we can expect to see in their populations in the near future with environmental change,” Zazula said.

“That’s really the most informative aspect of ice age paleontology, is that it can actually provide you with some real information in terms of what animal populations might be doing in the near future.”

Contact Jackie Hong at

University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Matthew Funck shows a sample taken from a bison horn. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Ben Barst from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, drills into a bison horn to remove a sample while at a palaeontology lab in Whitehorse. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)