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Three women holding a bison skull.

UMC naturalist Laura Bell (center) with natural resources students Kristin Fritz (left) and Mary Jo Gelder.

Historic bison skull on Crookston campus

March 2, 2007

Thanks to Dennis Nikolayson of rural Erskine, the University of Minnesota, Crookston (UMC) has a piece of the past. Nikolayson and his father were working in a former peat bog on his farm west of Erskine in 1958 when they discovered an almost perfect bison skull and most of the skeleton, along with remnants of two other bison. The thousand-year-old skull is on display in UMC's Natural History Collection on the second floor of Owen Hall. There were once 75 million bison, also known as American buffalo, ranging on the grasslands as far east as the Atlantic Ocean and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, but the animals have been gone from Minnesota for more than a century. Small herds of bison were still found wandering in the state as late as 1880, according to a historical record from Twin Valley resident A. Hawkins. As a 9-year-old, Hawkins saw four bison heading west in June while herding cattle. This sighting is apparently the last record of wild bison in the state, Gustav Swanson noted in The Mammals of Minnesota.

A bison
A bison at rest.

Bison bones are not especially uncommon in peat bogs and river sediments in northwest Minnesota. "When the Red Lake River is low, one can find bison and elk bone fragments, but it is rare to find an intact skull like the one on loan from Mr. Nikolayson," says Dan Svedarsky, head of the Natural Resources Department on the Crookston campus. "It is intriguing to imagine the circumstances of how the adult bison came to be trapped in the boggy area."

Where the buffalo roam ...

By 1880, immigrant settlement and slaughter by market hunters and the U.S. Army had combined to reduce buffalo numbers to a handful of captive bison. Soldiers killed thousands of buffalo in an attempt to starve Indian tribes.

Today, largely because of captive herds, buffalo have been reintroduced in preserves and parks in Minnesota. A mature bull may stand five to six feet high at the shoulder, measure nearly 10 feet in length and weigh more than 2,000 pounds. Cows are smaller, weighing about 1,200 pounds. A grazing mammal, the bison feeds almost entirely on grasses.

Source: The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Nikolayson says the peat was about six to eight feet deep. Originally open water, the wetland would have originated after the retreat of the last glacial ice sheet and before the drainage of Glacial Lake Agassiz approximately 9,000 years ago. An accumulation of peat would have had to be present to trap the bison, dating the skull to at least 1,000 years old.

The skull is on exhibit for an indefinite period, after which it could be moved to a regional interpretive center, says Svedarsky.

The display case in Owen Hall is located in the central hallway across from Room 210. It is available for public viewing whenever the building is open.