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During the Ice Age, a much higher percentage of the Earth's water was impounded in massive ice sheets,

which resulted in a significant drop in sea levels around the world. Today's narrow channel between North America and Siberia would have been a wide, low, and wet plain over which Siberian herd animals such as the Ste ppe bison, mammoth , mastodon, camel, an horse migrated to the Americas. Of cour se, along with the herd animals came the predators, such as the dire wolf, Ameri can lion, and giant short-faced bear. Many generations of these and other animal s could have 1ived their entire1ives on, and around, the Siberian land bridge. These animals were huge. Males had horn spreads reaching two meters, and they st ood as much as 40 percent taller than today s bison. The vertebral spines of the " hump" area absolutely and relatively longer than more recent forms of bison. Ill ustrations of the Steppe bison on cave walls and studies of frozen mummies of bi son (Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe, R. D. Guthrie, 1990) suggest that these early bison had thicker, longer beards, and thick hair on the legs and the bell y as well as on the hump. Many herd animals from the Ice Age were bigger and hai rier than their present counterparts. Larger relative body size and denser, long er hair cover are adaptive to colder environments. Scientists who study bison an d the Ice Age environment have noted that, as early as 50,000 years ago, a decli ne in body size, particularly horn cores, already was well underway. Bison have impacted the landscapes of North America more than any other species. The story of this majestic animal is perhaps one of the most exciting in all of the Americas. On an evolutionary time scale, bison can be used as a key species through the environmental changes in North America from a relatively colder, we tter Ice Age environment to the drier and warmer ecosystems that are present tod ay. Diet for these rare specimens can be determined from two sources. First, if the internal organs are preserved, stomach content can be examined and plant remains identified. Second, small particles of food are trapped in the natural, deep po ckets (influndibula) of molar teeth. Even these small fragments of leaves and st ems can be identified. Besides telling scientists what bison were eating, this i nformation helps reconstruct vegetation zones. When plant food remains have been analyzed from most of the known, frozen mummies from the northern regions, the results help scientists map the distribution of plants at different times The Ice Age came to an end with warming weather and retreating ice sheets. Chang es in climate and moisture caused changes in the plant life. Environmental chang es create new challenges for all animals. They had to adapt their habits and die ts. Some of the physical traits, such as large size and thick pelage, which were advantageous in the Ice Age, no longer were adaptive in the Holocene environmen t. Some animals, like the woolly mammoth, mastodon, woolly rhinoceros, and horse did not make the transition to the post-Ice Age environment in North America. H owever, the horse did survive in Eurasia and Africa. Most of the carnivores of t he Ice Age also went extinct. Only one large, plant-eating species successfully made the change-the bison. Smaller plant eaters that adapted to the new environm ent were from the moose, wapiti (elk), deer, and pronghorn. Characteristics of size, shape, and even hair color, are important clues to scie ntists who study the behavior of animals. For example, what's the significance o f horns: large horns vs. small horns, horns that project forward vs. those point ing to the rear? What is the significance of the bison's hump, and how does it t ell us about the animals living in open environments, where bulls prominently di splay themselves in order to attract cows? In the case of bison, the large horns of the Steppe bison are also associated with thick shoulder and neck skin, and an expansion of the buttressing of the frontal sinuses in the skull. The interna l buttressing has the two-fold advantage of lightening the weight of the skull, while still providing shock absorption in the frontal clashes between bulls duri ng the rutting season. Reduction of horn size from the ancient bison to the pres

ent bison suggests that combats have become less lethal and more ritualized. The size of the hump, which itself is a reflection of the size of the dorsal spi nes of the thoracic vertebrae, may be related to two factors. First, bison have very large heads relative to their body size. The thoracic spines serve as ancho rs for the muscles that are needed to support the weight of the head. The larger the head, the larger the muscle mass needed for support. Second, larger dorsal spines and longer scapula give the bison a long stride for its relatively short legs. In short, the bison can move over long distances with great efficiency of movement. In grazing animals, energy efficiency and energy conservation are a de finite advantage.