Uncovered during a mining operation, the carcass of an Alaska steppe bison has revealed
the story of the animal’s Ice Age death to scientists at the University of Alaska
Museum on the UAF campus.
Close-up picture of Blue Babe. The steppe bison is displayed in the University of
Alaska Museum at UAF.
Gold miners Walter and Ruth Roman and their sons discovered the carcass in 1979 near
Fairbanks, Alaska. Part of the bison was exposed as water from a hydraulic mining
hose melted the frozen muck in which it was embedded. The miners, realizing the potential
significance of their find, contacted the university.
Paleontologist Dale Guthrie determined the carcass was of an Ice Age bison (Bison
priscus), probably tens of thousands of years old. He decided to excavate immediately
in order to remove the frozen relic before it could deteriorate.
It soon became obvious that the bison carcass could not be excavated quickly because
of frozen ground and the close proximity of large ice wedges. Although high summer
temperatures melted several inches of soil per day, the bison remained frozen in the
vertical bank for some time.
Eventually the carcass hung freely from the bank by the head and neck which were still
embedded in frozen soil. Fearing the thawed portion of the bison would begin to decompose,
Guthrie severed it from the head and neck, transported it to UAF and refroze it. Excavation
of the head and neck continued until they also came free from the muck bank. They
then were stored with the rest of the carcass.
Blue Babe in the glass case at the University of Alaska Museum.
As the frozen soil surrounding the bison melted, they were collected and screen-washed
to expose bone fragments, hair, insects, wood, and plant parts. The surrounding geology,
the orientation and position of the bison carcass, and all material found in association
with it were recorded. This information helped in piecing together the bison’s story.