Illinois hunting and fishing

Dr. Chris Widga of the Illinois State Museum examines the vertebra of a muskox discovered in the Sangamon River near Riverside Park by Tony Blisset during a family outing on July 29. Photos by Chris Young

Bone from Ice Age animal found in Sangamon River

September 01, 2012 at 08:37 AM

Low water levels in the Sangamon River caused by this summer’s drought have revealed a relic of Illinois’ Ice Age past.

Tony Blisset of Springfield was spending a hot day at Riverside Park with his family July 29 when he found the vertebra of a Harlan’s muskox, an animal that became extinct more than 12,000 years ago.

Officials with the Illinois State Museum unveiled the specimen Friday afternoon.

Jeffrey Saunders and Chris Widga of the museum compared the bone with others in the collection and identified it as a Harlan’s muskox.

“Dr. Widga and I are interested in Ice Age animals, not only in their distribution on the landscape but throughout time,” Saunders said. “It is a rare find that raises our statewide inventory of this animal to 13.”

A similar vertebra was found in 2008 in Salt Creek in Logan County.

No other examples of Ice Age animals have been found within the city of Springfield, Saunders said.

It’s cousin, the modern muskox, still survives in Arctic regions.

The Sangamon River was about 11 feet lower in late July than it was in May, Saunders said.

“The drought was part and parcel with the recovery of this specimen,” he said. “When the rivers go down, bones come out.”

Blisset said his family was looking for something to do when they settled on a trip to the park to cool off in the river.

“It was a hot day, and it was like 103 degrees,” Blisset said. “We were inside and we were just kind of bored and wanted to do something, so we thought, ‘What a better way (to cool off than) to go to the park, get in the river because it’s really low, and it’s free.’

“We just jumped in and had a good time.”

A couple of hours later, Blisset jumped from a tree branch into the river, and his feet hit the vertebra.

“I thought it was a rock, and I thought I ought to move it out of the way so nobody got hurt,” he said. “When I scooped it up, I said, ‘Oh, my God, I found a bone.’”

At first he thought it could be from a cow, horse or maybe even a bear.

Illinois hunting and fishing
A vertebra from a Harlan’s muskox is on display in the lobby of the Illinois State Museum.

So he went to museum’s Web site and found Saunders and Widga.

“And lo and behold, I found something that was just waiting 12,000 years to take a car ride down to their office,” he said.

Saunders said bones like the vertebra are among the first to be washed downstream when a skeleton is exposed. The skull, if it still exists, probably is upstream.

Widga said it is unknown how old the specimen is. The range could extend from as long ago as 20,000 years — the maximum extent of the last ice sheet — to 12,000 years ago, when the Harlan’s muskox died out.

Saunders said the odds of any prehistoric animal’s bones ending up at the museum are long.

“(The river) carved this thing out and deposited it where Tony could jump on it,” Saunders said.

“It’s tough to be a fossil,” he said. “First, you have to die.”

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.