Bison horns lay on a table ready to be examined. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

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

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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here


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)

Just Posted

Dawson the dog sits next to the Chariot Patrick Jackson has loaded and rigged up to walk the Dempster Highway from where it begins, off the North Klondike Highway, to the Arctic Circle. (Submitted)
Walking the Dempster

Patrick Jackson gets set for 405-kilometre journey

Liberal leader Sandy Silver speaks outside his campaign headquarters in Dawson City following early poll results on April 12. (Robin Sharp/Yukon News)
BREAKING: Minority government results will wait on tie vote in Vuntut Gwitchin

The Yukon Party and the Liberal Party currently have secured the same amount of seats

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
YUKONOMIST: The Neapolitan election

Do you remember those old bricks of Neapolitan ice cream from birthday… Continue reading

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Exposure notice issued for April 3 Air North flight

Yukon Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley has issued another… Continue reading

Crystal Schick/Yukon News file
Runners in the Yukon Arctic Ultra marathon race down the Yukon River near the Marwell industrial area in Whitehorse on Feb. 3, 2019.
Cold-weather exercise hard on the lungs

Amy Kenny Special to the Yukon News It might make you feel… Continue reading

Today’s Mailbox: Rent freezes and the youth vote

Dear Editor, I read the article regarding the recommendations by the Yukon… Continue reading

Point-in-Time homeless count planned this month

Volunteers will count those in shelters, short-term housing and without shelter in a 24-hour period.

The Yukon’s new ATIPP Act came into effect on April 1. Yukoners can submit ATIPP requests online or at the Legislative Assembly building. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News file)
New ATIPP Act in effect as of April 1

The changes promise increased government transparency

A new conservancy in northern B.C. is adjacent to Mount Edziza Provincial Park. (Courtesy BC Parks)
Ice Mountain Lands near Telegraph Creek, B.C., granted conservancy protection

The conservancy is the first step in a multi-year Tahltan Stewardship Initiative

Yukon RCMP reported a child pornography-related arrest on April 1. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press file)
Whitehorse man arrested on child pornography charges

The 43-year-old was charged with possession of child pornography and making child pornography

Team Yukon athletes wave flags at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremony in Whitehorse. The postponed 2022 event in Wood Buffalo, Alta., has been rescheduled for Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 2023. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)
New dates set for Arctic Winter Games

Wood Buffalo, Alta. will host event Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 2023

Victoria Gold Corp. has contributed $1 million to the First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun after six months of production at the Eagle Gold Mine. (Submitted/Victoria Gold Corp.)
Victoria Gold contributes $1 million to First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun

Victoria Gold signed a Comprehensive Cooperation and Benefits Agreement in 2011

Most Read