The History of Bison in Southeastern North America

When most people think of bison, they imagine great herds of “buffalo” roaming the wide open prairies of western states. Many don’t realize bison ranged as far east as the Atlantic coast until 1800. The fossil record shows bison were a common species in southeastern North America since about 240,000 years ago. (Bison fossils were found at two sites in Florida thought to be 1.9 million years old, but the age of these specimens is in doubt, because they can’t be radiometrically dated, and there are no known American bison fossils dating between 1.9 million BP1 and 240,000 BP.) The oldest known American bison fossil, aside from the doubtful Florida specimens, is an ankle bone found at the Ten Mile Hill Beds in South Carolina, dating to ~240,000 BP. This is remarkable because bison originated in Asia and crossed the Bering Land Bridge to reach North America, yet left no known fossil evidence in the rest of North America older than this South Carolina specimen. However, bison fossils consistently show up in the American fossil record shortly after this date. The presence of bison marks the beginning of the Rancholabrean Land Mammal Age, named for the famous La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California. The Rancholabrean Land Mammal Age lasted from ~240,000 BP to ~11,000 BP.

The earliest species of bison to occupy southeastern North America was the long-horned bison (Bison latifrons). This enormous species weighed as much as 3,000 pounds, and the span of its horns could be more than 6 feet long. Long-horned bison evolved into their great size to deter predators such as saber-toothed cats (Smilodon fatalis), giant lions (Panthera atrox), and dire wolves (Canis dirus). It likely favored an open woodland habitat, common in the region then. A complete skull with intact horns was found at Clark Quarry near Brunswick, Georgia in 2006. This specimen dates to 24,000 BP. (A previous date on this specimen of 14,000 BP is considered in error.) Shortly after 24,000 BP, Bison latifrons evolved into Bison antiquus.

B. antiquus was a smaller species than B. latifrons but still considerably larger than modern bison (B. bison). B. antiquus weighed up to 2500 pounds and had horns intermediate in size between B. latifrons and modern bison. It evolved during the Last Glacial Maximum2 when the ice sheets expanded to their greatest extent. So much of earth’s atmospheric moisture was locked in glacial ice that the climate became arid. B. antiquus was better adapted to living in arid climates than B. latifrons. They probably could endure longer time periods without water, and they migrated longer distances to find suitable pasture.

Genetic studies show that B. antiquus was much more genetically diverse than modern bison. All modern bison evolved from just a single population of B. antiquus that lived on the Great Plains. Man overhunted all other lineages of B. antiquus into extinction, including those that lived in southeastern North America, shaping the evolution of the surviving population of bison about 11,000 years ago. This surviving population of bison grew to a smaller size, reaching sexual maturity at an earlier age than B. antiquus. By reaching sexual maturity at an earlier age, modern bison increased their reproductive rate and were better able to withstand human hunting pressure. B. antiquus already had a tendency to migrate, but this migratory instinct was enhanced in modern bison. The newer species was more likely to travel far away from hunting humans.3

Following the extinction of B. antiquus about 11,000 years ago, there is no certain fossil evidence of bison in southeastern North America until 1600 AD. However, bison were able to recolonize southeastern North America during the late 1500’s because infectious diseases brought by Europeans decimated Indian populations. Much of Indian farmland reverted to wilderness.

Bison populations expanded east where they found favorable habitat on abandoned Indian fields, and natural grassy environments. The surviving Indians continued setting fire to the woods every year, a management practice that improved habitat for wildlife by creating open woodlands with grassy understories. Bison could feed upon grass year round along with bountiful crops of acorns produced by widely spaced oaks in the fall. Mature oak and pine trees are fire resistant, but fire destroys the saplings and brush — a process of “thermal pruning.” Extensive canebrakes that stretched for miles occurred on most river and creek bottomlands in the piedmont region. Bamboo cane was another source of fodder for expanding bison populations.

Grasslands in the south were not dependent upon man-made fires. Studies show lightning strikes in the south are frequent enough to spark wildfires that can maintain grassy environments. Lightning-induced fires created the longleaf pine savannahs that formerly predominated on the coastal plain for millions of years. This was ideal habitat for bison and other grazers as were serpentine barrens–areas of soil with high concentrations of heavy metals that allow grass to outcompete trees. Other types of natural grasslands in the south that supported bison included alkaline cedar glades, Kentucky bluegrass savanna/woodland, Louisiana coastal prairies, and The Black Belt Prairies in Alabama and Mississippi.

By 1600 bison had recolonized the south as far east as St. Simon’s Island, Georgia where bison bones were found in an Indian mound located in Chatham County. Bison bones dating to 1700 were found in Clay County, Florida at the former site of a Spanish settlement known as Fort Pupo. General Oglethorpe, who founded the state of Georgia, went hunting for bison in 1733. Edward Kingo saw 100 bison on one acre of ground near Abbeville, Georgia about this same time period. Buffalo licks consisting of minerals or clays attracted huge herds of bison. The Great Buffalo Lick in east central Georgia was covered in white clay-colored dung, and great pits were licked from the soil by large herds of bison. Bison congregated around Big Bone Lick and Blue Licks in Kentucky for the mineral salts.

European settlers over-hunted bison to extirpation in the south during the 18th century. William Bartram, a famous naturalist, never saw a live bison when he traveled through the region in 1775 and 1776, though he did see the skulls of bison mixed with bones of deer, elk, and humans on a serpentine barren hill top.4 James Couper shot the last known bison in Georgia circa 1800, near the Turtle River, a coastal waterway. This was also the last bison known from the Atlantic Coast. The last bison in Pennsylvania was shot in 1801. The last Louisiana bison was killed in 1803. Bison were extirpated from Kentucky in 1820, from Tennessee in 1823, and from West Virginia in 1825. Bison trails (or traces) remained visible for decades after their disappearance from the region. The bison herds caused these trails to have a sunken denuded structure, and settlers used these hard-packed eroded trails as roads. Many became state highways.

The extirpation of bison in the south caused a profound loss of ecological diversity. Bison maintained open areas by trampling, grazing, and eating acorns, thus reducing tree germination. Ground squirrels, prairie chickens, bobwhite quail, upland sandpipers, meadowlarks, and burrowing owls are just a few of the animals that benefitted from the presence of bison. Bison increased the fertility of the soil and enhanced seed dispersal by consuming plants and defecating all over the landscape. Their dusty wallows served as refuges for toads and countless species of insects. Once common species of plants became rare: short’s goldenrod (Solidago shortii) and running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum) depended upon heavy grazing and trampling to reduce competition. Now both of these species are nearly extinct.

Today, there are only two populations of wild bison in the south: Payne’s Prairie in Florida and Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky. Both are fenced-in and heavily managed. It’s impractical to reintroduce bison on a large scale.5 Any reintroduction would be limited to small-scale, heavily-managed preserves. Bison roam great distances, and there just isn’t enough wild space left to support traveling herds of bison. Moreover, the habitat they require is simply gone. Open mature woodlands with grassy understories dependent upon frequent fires no longer exist in the piedmont. People suppress fires. There are no Kentucky bluegrass savannah/woodlands left, though remnants are used as fenced-in horse pastures. Canebrakes are almost completely gone due to flood control and agriculture. Longleaf pine savannahs have been reduced by 97%. Instead, southern landscapes are now covered by suburban development, intensive agriculture, and young dense forests unsuitable for wild bison.

Bison could potentially be reintroduced in two areas. Roan Mountain Bald in North Carolina is a grassy high-elevation mountain top. Scientists hypothesize frigid weather during the Ice Age killed trees there, and herds of megafauna later maintained the grassy environment. Europeans introduced livestock that took the ecological role of megafauna, but since farmers abandoned the Bald, trees and bushes have been taking over. Right now the park service uses goats rather than bison to maintain the open grassy space. Another potential reintroduction site is the Greenwood Plantation in south Georgia, which quail hunters saved from development, although bison would likely need to be fenced-in there to prevent roaming. It’s sad to realize we can no longer enjoy seeing free-roaming herds of bison in the south, where they do belong, because people have so drastically altered the environment.

For more writing by Mark Gelbart, visit his blog at GeorgiaBeforePeople.

References

  • Belue, Ted. The Long Hunt: Death of the Buffalo East of the Mississippi. Stackpole Books 1996.
  • Juras, Philip. The Southern Frontier: Landscapes Inspired by Bartram’s Travels. Telfair Books 2011.
  • McDonald, Jerry. North American Bison: Their Classification and Evolution. University of California Press 1981.
  • Noss, Reed. Forgotten Grasslands of the South. Island Press 2013.
  • Sanders, Albert. Additions to the Pleistocene Mammal Faunas of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. American Philosophical Society 2002.
  1. From Wikipedia, 26 June 2015: “Before Present (BP) years is a time scale used mainly in geology and other scientific disciplines to specify when events in the past occurred. Because the ‘present’ time changes, standard practice is to use 1 January 1950 as commencement date of the age scale, reflecting the fact that radiocarbon dating became practicable in the 1950s. The abbreviation ‘BP,’ with the same meaning, has also been interpreted as ‘Before Physics’; that is, before nuclear weapons testing artificially altered the proportion of the carbon isotopes in the atmosphere, making dating after that time likely to be unreliable.”
  2. The Last Glacial Maximum is a geological time-period when glaciers were thickest and the sea level at its lowest. Deglaciation at the end of this time period caused profound changes on the earth’s geography and climate. See Clark, Peter U., et al. “The last glacial maximum.Science 325.5941 (2009): 710-714.
  3. Wilson, Michael C., Leonard V. Hills, and Beth Shapiro. “Late Pleistocene northward-dispersing Bison antiquus from the Bighill Creek Formation, Gallelli gravel pit, Alberta, Canada, and the fate of Bison occidentalis.Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 45.7 (2008): 827-859.
  4. Bartram, William. The Travels of William Bartram. University of Georgia Press, 1998.
  5. For some information on efforts to restore bison populations, and the effects they have on the surrounding ecology, see “Interview with Dave Foreman“:

    Another friend of mine has been running bison on a restored cattle ranch, and is discovering the ecological impact of bison and how different they are from cattle. Today the cattle have just about cleaned out all of the native cactus, and they have opened up a juniper woodland. They actually even go into a larger streams and horn-up the beginning of the erosion of the head wall and smooth it out. All this incredible stuff that the bison do to make things better, whereas cattle do everything to make it worse.