Thursday, 26 September 2013

Oldest and Youngest Stag-Moose in North America

Sep. 19, 2013 — Matthew Hill has identified countless bones found by farmers, fishermen, rock hounds and heavy equipment operators. Most of the remains turn out to be deer, bison, horse or cow bones, or simply odd looking rocks. But some discoveries turn out to be highly unusual, as was the case with an antler from an extinct Ice Age animal known as a stag-moose or elk-moose.

"At first, I was puzzled. I knew it did not belong to a white-tailed deer, elk or caribou. It looked sort of like a moose antler, but not quite -- it was different," Hill said. "I suspected it might be stag-moose, so I sent a picture to a colleague at the Illinois State Museum to compare it with specimens in their collections. He confirmed my suspicion."

The discovery inspired Hill, an associate professor of anthropology at Iowa State University, to learn more about when the animal was in Iowa and search for additional specimens. Specifically, he wanted to determine the age of the antler and two other specimens he located. So he carefully cut a small cube from each specimen and sent them off to an Arizona lab for radiocarbon dating.

The results far exceeded Hill's expectations. Turns out, one of the samples is more than 30,000 years old, making it the oldest specimen of a stag-moose ever recorded in North America. The results of the radiocarbon dating, which would not have been possible without a grant from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, are now fueling Hill's curiosity and new research.

"It means that these animals were here before the glaciers covered central Iowa, and that they returned for a short time after the glaciers retreated as well," Hill said. "Still, we don't know a whole lot about the ecology of these animals. When they appeared, their numbers on the landscape, the cause of their demise, and what other animals they were living with side-by-side? There are just a whole lot of questions and this will be a great opportunity to learn more."

Such discoveries often start with a phone call. Hill fields dozens of calls each year from people across the state with questions for him about a bone or a skull. In fact, the stag-moose antler that sparked Hill's interest was discovered by an Ames man, who was searching the South Skunk River near Ada Hayden Park for remains. Radiocarbon dating determined the antler to be 13,400-13,700 years old.

The 30,000-year-old specimen was found in the 1970s by a gravel pit operator working near Jester Park in Polk County. It was donated to the State Historical Museum in Des Moines, where it is on display. The third specimen, located near Parkersburg, is part of a personal collection. Hill said the animal lived 12,600 to 12,800 years ago, and tied a specimen from north-central Wisconsin for the youngest record of the stag-moose. What he finds most exciting is that the age of the Parkersburg specimen suggests the first people to occupy Iowa -- so-called Clovis hunters -- may have preyed on the beast.

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