Ancient Bison

illustration of two large bison in forground with small herd of bison and mountains in the distance
A male (left) and female (right) ancient bison standing in front of a bison herd.  The skull of a Pleistocene long-horned bison was excavated from Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument.

NPS illustration by Benji Paysnoe.

Scientific Name

Bison antiquus


The ancient bison, Bison antiquus, was taller, had longer horns, and was 25% more massive than living American bison (Bison bison). It was roughly 7.5 feet tall and 15 feet long, weighing approximately 3,500 pounds. Bison had bone horn cores on their skull that served as a base for a longer horn made of keratin, the protein that makes up our fingernails. The span of the horns of Bison antiquus was approximately 3 feet.

Fossils of Bison antiquus were first described by American paleontologist Joseph Leidy in 1852.


North American bison are part of the Bovini group which include cattle, yaks, zebu, wiset (the European bison), and gaur. The relationships between different species of extinct bison are complicated and still under scientific investigation; however, it is clear the ancestor to North American bison emigrated from Eurasia by crossing Beringia. Bison antiquus is likely ancestral to the living American bison (Bison bison).

Distribution and Habitat

Fossils of the ancient bison have been found across North America, as far north as Alaska and into southern Mexico. It most likely preferred open habitats such as grasslands, open woodlands, and open wetlands.


The Ancient bison was an herbivore, feeding on grasses and herbaceous plants. Like cows and living bison, Ancient bison were ruminants that chewed their cud.

Age and Behavior

Fossil evidence from around North America strongly suggest that the Ancient bison formed large herds like their living decedents. The oldest known fossils of Bison antiquus are ~240,000-220,000 years old, and they survived until approximately 10,000 years ago.

Tule Springs Bison

Approximately 15% of the total large mammal fossils found at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument are identified as Bison sp. Commonly identifiable fossils from ancient bison include molar teeth, mandible, and limb bones. Softer tissues like the horn keratin, hooves, fur, and skin are not preserved at Tule Springs Fossil Beds-the Pleistocene wetlands and modern desert climate did not preserve bison “mummies” in the same way as polar regions of North America and Siberia.

Part of a series of articles titled Prehistoric Life of Tule Springs.

Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument

Last updated: October 12, 2021