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Extinct Long-horned Bison & Ancient Bison (Bison latifrons and B. antiquus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Extinct Long-horned Bison & Ancient Bison (Bison latifrons and B. antiquus)

How Do We Know This?

Like living animals, fossil remains of once-living animals are classified and grouped according to their relationships to each other and to their ancestors.

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

  • "Latifrons" comes from Latin words referring to a wide forehead
  • "Antiquus" comes from the Latin for "old' or "ancient".
  • First fossil bison described in North America was a Bison latifrons found in Kentucky (Peale 1803)
  • Bison taxonomy underwent a long period of taxonomic splitting that resulted in some 10 fossil species recognized in North America by Skinner and Kaisen in 1947.
    • This taxonomy in great need of revision (McDonald 1981)
  • Relationship of modern American bison and European bison is unclear at present, but both are quite similar genetically and can interbreed (Prusak et al 2004)
  • Wilson (1974, 1975) and Kurtén and Anderson (1980) describe the Pleistocene fossil species Bison antiquus as a subspecies of the modern Bison bison., but later authors disagreed, preferring to classify B. antiquus as a separate species from the modern bison (McDonald 1981) (Prusak et al 2004)
  • Modern North American bison have two recognized subspecies: the American Plains Bison (B. b. bison) and the American Wood Bison (B. b. athabascae). (McDonald 1981)


Evolutionary History

  • Even-toed hoofed mammals trace their ancestry back to at least 45 million years ago in Eocene times.
  • The Bison genus first appeared in southern Asia, around 2 million years ago (McDonald 1981)
  • Bison priscuswas the ancestor of at least some of the North American bison (Prusak 2004)
    • This species flourished in northern Eurasia and Alaska and may have been the dominant hoofed mammal there (Guthrie 1970)
  • Bison immigrated to North America several times in the Pleistocene during the low sea levels when exposed land connected North America and Asia
  • B. latifrons appeared by 500,000 years ago in North American and survived until around 20,000 years ago.
  • The first appearance of B. antiquus in North America was around 250,000 years ago (Jefferson 2001)
  • The B. antiquus line may have led to modern American Plains Bison whereas European bison may be descendants of Pleistocene bison that returned to Europe from North America. (McDonald 1981)
  • B. antiquus and B. latifrons lived at the same time for part of their history (McDonald 1981)
  • B. latifrons became extinct around 20,000 years ago (McDonald 1981)
  • B. antiquus survived into the Holocene until around 5,000 to 4,000 years ago. (McDonald 1981)
  • Modern bison in America (Bison bison) and Europe (Bison bonasus) are genetically very closely related, yet researchers say they shouldn't be classified as simply subspecies. (Prusak 2004)
  • All bison nearly became extinct in North America at the end of the Pleistocene when much of the other megafauna did become extinct (McDonald 1981)


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Artiodactyla* (even-toed hoofed animals: includes pigs, sheep goats, cattle, deer)

Family: Bovidae (cattle, water buffalo, bison, antelopes, goats, sheep and more)

Genus: Bison (C. H. Smith, 1827)

Species: Bison priscus - extinct Steppe Bison

Bison latifrons (Harlan, 1825*) - extinct Long-horned bison

Bison antiquus (Leidy 1852**) - extinct Ancient Bison

Bison bison - American Bison

Subspecies: Bison bison bison (American Plains Bison)
Subspecies: Bison bison athabascae (American Wood Bison)

Species:  Bison bonasus (European Bison)

Subspecies: Bison bonasus bonasus (Lowland Bison)
Subspecies: Bison bonasus caucasicus (extinct in 1925)
Subspecies: Bison bonasus hungarorum (extinct Hungarian Bison)

*Harlan 1825: Fauna Americana (Philadelphia: A. Finley). p. 273
**Leidy, 1852: Proc., Acad. of Nat. Sci. of Philadelphia, Vol. 6, p. 117

*Note: New anatomical and DNA evidence on the relationship between Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates) and Cetacea (whales and dolphins) recently led to a merging of the two orders into a new group, Cetartiodactyla (Montgelard, 1997; reviewed in Kulemzina, 2009). As of October 2012, experts had not agreed on whether to define Cetartiodactyla as an official taxonomic order that would replace Artiodactyla and Cetacea. Some continue to list giraffes in the order Artiodactyla (Franklin, 2011) or use the term Cetartiodactyla without defining it as an order (IUCN, 2008).

Page Citations

Jefferson (2001)
Kurtén & Anderson (1980)

McDonald (1981)
Prusak et al (2004)

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