The Extinct Bison of Floyds Fork
Writer / Curtis Carman
The Parklands landscape is rich with plants and animals—more than 700 species have been identified. The diversity of life around Floyds Fork has taken millions of years to come about.
Oceans have come and gone, mountains were built up and torn down and organisms evolved and went extinct. Over the most recent millennia, changes have occurred much more quickly than would have otherwise, as humans came to dominate the world. In eastern North America, Kentucky and The Parklands, there are a few missing pieces worth mentioning to better understand the unseen picture of the landscape. Some of these pieces have been gone for thousands of years, while others are on the brink today.
During earth’s last glacial period, the Pleistocene, megafauna such as mammoths roamed The Parklands and the Bluegrass Region. In fact, bones and skeletons of many species, including mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths and bison that once roamed through the mineral springs and swamps have been found at Big Bone Lick State Park in northern Kentucky. Today, we can still find clues on the landscape of their presence like Osage Orange and Honey Locust trees. The sharp thorns on these trees are adaptations to ward off hungry mammoths who liked to eat the Osage Oranges and Honey Locust seedpods. More than 20,000 years have now passed since their extinction and the landscape is distinctly different supporting other types of wildlife.
Like the extinct megafauna, the American bison migrated from one mineral spring to another. The many “licks” in Kentucky, from Big Bone Lick, to Bullitt’s Lick south of Louisville and Pope Lick along Floyds Fork, served as sources of essential minerals for the animals. As the largest animal in the east (once the megafauna went extinct), the bison roamed in herds of thousands of animals. Because the animals migrated intentionally to specific destinations (the licks), they wore huge paths through the forested and open country of the Ohio Valley.
These traces, hammered by the hoofs of countless animals, later became the travel routes for early American explorers and settlers. Many of our modern highways follow the animals’ paths. Today, the bison is functionally extinct in the east. However, small fenced populations live at Big Bone Lick State Park and elsewhere.
The next time you roam The Parklands, stop to take in the rich history of the land among you. You might even spot some traces left behind from past species.