Large-scale climatic drivers of bison distribution and abundance in North America since the Last Glacial Maximum

John A.F. Wendt, David B. McWethy, Chris Widga, Bryan N. Shuman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


As the dominant large herbivore in midcontinent North America since the terminal Pleistocene, bison (Bison spp.) have been a fundamental component of ecosystems and economies. Despite the importance of bison in late Quaternary North America, large-scale (regional to continental) patterns of bison biogeography are not well understood. Here we integrate archaeological and paleontological bison occurrence data with simulated climate data to better understand long-term drivers of bison distribution and abundance in North America. We used these records to model bison distribution and abundance over the past 20 thousand years at 1-thousand-year intervals. Our results show that late Quaternary changes in the distribution and abundance of bison were influenced by large-scale trends in temperature and precipitation. The distribution of bison since the Bølling–Allerød Interstadial (ca. 14 ka) is primarily explained by seasonal temperature patterns (mean temperature of the coldest quarter is the most important variable for 12 of the 14 1-thousand-year intervals). The modeled climate of bison distributions progressively narrowed since the Last Glacial Maximum (ca. 20 ka) as bison populations retracted from disjunct Pleistocene refugia and congregated in midcontinent rangelands. Through the Pleistocene-Holocene transition, bison experienced rapidly warming summer temperatures that increased faster in midcontinent North America than other regions and the continent as a whole. Model results suggest that Holocene bison abundance was influenced by hydroclimatic shifts that affected the quality and availability of forage. Bison abundances decreased through the dry early and mid-Holocene and increased when moisture availability improved in the late Holocene. We infer that bison have thrived under a broad range of environmental conditions since the Last Glacial Maximum and that the climatic and biogeographic space occupied by bison narrowed in recent millennia.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107472
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - May 15 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology

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