Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in Pleistocene Georgia

It always fascinates me that caribou used to roam what’s now Georgia. The presence of caribou in the Pleistocene south is confirmed from fossil finds in Yarbrough Cave, Bartow County, Georgia; Bell Cave in northern Alabama; Charleston, South Carolina; and at least 3 sites in Tennessee–Baker Bluff Cave, Beartown Cave, and Guy Wilson Cave.  Caribou fossils have not been found in the abundant fossil sites in Florida, so its southernmost range limit occurred somewhere along a line drawn through what’s now middle Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama.  The present day range of eastern woodland caribou was completely under glacial ice during much of the last Ice Age, so of course, they must have ranged further south.

What a majestic beast.

I have some questions about caribou in Pleistocene Georgia that I suppose may never be answered.  Were they year round residents or did they migrate here seasonally?   Today, barren ground caribou are known for their long distance migrations, but eastern woodland caribou are reported to stay in the same area their entire lives.  Did caribou live in the south during cold phases of climate or were they here during interstadials as well.  The caribou fossil from Charleston, South Carolina comes from strata thought to date to a warm interglacial.  There is a scientific method that can be used to answer the first question.  So far no scientist has chosen to chemically analyze the tooth enamel of fossil bones of southern caribou.  By determining the strontium isotope ratios in the tooth enamel they can compare it to that of extant mammals and mathmatically estimate where the extirpated southern caribou spent their time.  Scientists have used this technique with mastodons and mammoths.  Scientists determined from mastodon fossils found in Florida that they had spent time in central Georgia, but mammoths in Florida did not migrate long distances.

Robert Martin, a professor at Murray State and author of Missing Links: Evolutionary Concepts and Transitions in Time, first identified two caribou molars from Yarbrough Cave.  In an email he informed me there was also unsorted material from the cave but was unclear whether this consisted of more caribou specimens.  Murray State donated all of the fossils to the Florida Museum of Natural History where they probably rest in the bottom of a basement drawer.  The original fossil discoveries were made in 1991 but they have yet to be described in detail in the scientific literature with the exception of a few teeth of southern bog lemmings.  I had to ask Dr. Martin which parts of the caribou they found in the cave. 

Caribou are the only member of the deer family that have antlered females.  Male caribou shed their antlers after the rut is over, but females retain theirs through the winter.  The females dig craters in the snow, exposing lichen and grasses–their food supply.  They defend these territories against other females and antlerless males.  The females with the biggest antlers have the best chance of maintaining their top condition for next year’s pregnancy, and it improves the survival rate for the present year’s calf.  In regions with light snows where it’s unnecessary to dig craters, female caribou have smaller or no antlers.  Therefore, southern female caribou probably had smaller antlers.

For most of the year cow caribou fear or are antagonistic toward bulls.  During the rut the bull caribou approach the cows by lowering their head and bleating like a calf approaching to nurse.  (This reminds me of human foreplay–tit sucking.)  The female will stop and urinate, and the male will smell the urine to test whether she’s in estrus.  The vomerosonal organ in the nostril is used to detect the pheremone levels.  Primates lost this organ along their evolutionary pathway, but humans still wrinkle their noses at funky odors.

Reindeer warble fly.  They lay eggs under the hides of caribou.  Eskimos enjoy eating the larva–a fatty, salty snack, according to R. Dale Guthrie.  Reindeer meat is lean, and the average human would starve on such a high protein diet with no fat.  The warble fly larva provided valuable fat for people living in the Pleistocene.  Reindeer warble flies must have expanded their range into Georgia during the Ice Age.

Reindeer warble flies (Oedenagena tarandi) torment caribou all summer.  Their larva live under the hide during the winter and emerge during the spring.  Caribou meat is a healthy source of protein but is so low in fat that most humans would starve to death if they only ate this kind of meat.  Eskimos and Pleistocene Europeans eat or ate the warble fly larva which is high in fat.  It’s a valuable dietary supplement.  Warble fly larva is even depicted in paleolithic art alongside the more famous cave paintings of mammoth, bison, and horses.  Reindeer warble flies almost certainly enjoyed an expanded range during the Pleistocene and flew in Georgia then.

Yarbrough Cave

The area around this cave is clear cut, and the owner would “just as soon fill the cave in or level it.”  Many real estate developers are ignorant Nazis whose God is money.

View from inside the cave.

Yarbrough Cave is a small one about 120 feet long with a couple of small side passages.  Some woodland Indian artifacts have been excavated here.  All of the Pleistocene fossils in this cave come from a surprisingly small area–a 5 foot square, 6 foot deep hole in a side passage known as the Peccary Room.  The fossils date from between ~15,000 BP-~ 19,000 BP (from 2 different specimens), the end stage of the Last Glacial Maximum.  Like most other Pleistocene fossil sites in Georgia, the species represent a variety of habitats that must have existed nearby–woodlands, grasslands, and wetlands.  13-lined ground squirrels require extensive treeless prairies, but the other 6 species of squirrels show that forests must have been predominant.  Beaver, muskrat, river otter, and raccoon prove wetlands occurred here as well. Many more microfossils were lost here when some nameless blundering scientist botched the removal of a large section of matrix.  He probably lost all the bird bones.  There’s probably more fossils to be found here with a little digging and as I mentioned earlier the fossils already found here have yet to be described in detail.  Anyway, here’s the list of Pleistocene fossils that were excavated from Yarbrough Cave between 1988-1991. * denotes extinct species

short tailed shrew–Blarina brevicauda

least shrew– Cryptotis parva

eastern mole–Scalopus aquaticus

eastern pipistrille-Pipistrelus subflavus

big brown bat–Eptesicus fuscus

*giant ground sloth (probably Harlan’s)–Megalonychid sp.

*beautiful armadillo–Dasypus bellus

rabbit sp.?–Sylvilagus sp.

eastern chipmunk–Tamias striatus

13-lined ground squirrel–Spermophilus tridecemlineatus

red squirrel–Tamiasciurus hudsonicus

gray squirrel–Sciurus carolinensis

fox squirrel–Sciurus niger

southern flying squirrel–Glaucomys volans

northern flying squirrel–Glaucomys sabrinus

woodchuck–Marmota monax

beaver–Castor canadensis

mouse sp.?–Peromyscus

wood rat–Neotoma floridana

pine vole–Microtus pinetoreum

*?steppe vole–Microtus sp.

meadow vole–Microtus pennsylvanicus

muskrat–Ondatra zibethicus

southern bog lemming–Synaptomys cooperi

meadow jumping mouse–Napeozapus insignis

dire or timber wolf–Canis dirus or lupus.  The preliminary report says the fossil material compares favorably to the latter but tooth size overlaps between the 2 species  and I bet it’s from the former.  Ronald Nowak, the world’s foremost authority on Pleistocene canids, doesn’t think timber wolves ever colonized the southeast.

black bear–Ursus americanus

raccoon–Procyon lotor

weasel sp.–Mustela

striped skunk–Mephitis mephitis

river otter–Lutra canadensis

cougar–Puma concolor

bobcat–Lynx rufus

*long-nosed peccary–Mylohyus nasatus

*flat-headed peccary–Platygonus compressus

white tail deer–Odocoileus virginianus

caribou–Rangifer tarandus


Guthrie, R. Dale

The Nature of Paleolithic Art

The University of Chicago Press 2006

Martin, Robert

“A Preliminary List of Late Pleistocene Mammals from the Peccary Room of Yarbrough Cave, Bartow County, Georgia”

Palidicola 3 (2) 33-39 May 2001


Tags: , , , , , ,

15 Responses to “Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in Pleistocene Georgia”

  1. jamesrobertsmith Says:

    It stands to reason that insects will follow their hosts, so no doubt warble flies were in the south.

    I’m also sure that there were probably insects who are now extinct because they were specialized toward a specific host. There are also mites that live only on specific species–so if their host becomes extinct, so do they.

    I think the best place for a good chance to see eastern woodland caribou is around Mount Jacques Cartier in the Chic Choc Mountains in Quebec. These are considered one of the northernmost extensions of our Appalachian Mountains and the animals are still there, fiercely protected by Canada’s version of the National Park Service.

    There has been talk of trying to reintroduce woodland caribou to Maine where they ranged in modern times, but that would entail duking it out with corporate interests and their various lapdogs (gun rights activists and all terrain vehicle morons).

  2. markgelbart Says:

    The attempt to reintroduce caribou to Maine began over 20 years ago and failed because of black bear predation and a brainworm parasite that was prevalent due to the overpopulation of white tail deer.

    Of course, the reason Maine wanted to introduce caribou was for hunters.

    Recently, the state of Georgia bought 10,000 acres of the Oaky Woods–a fabulous stretch of nature in central Georgia with an unusual concentration of oak trees and rare black belt prairies, thanks to the high calcium content of the soil. I couldn’t believe a conservative state legislature and a conservative governor were for this. Last week, I discovered why. The area has the last population of black bears in the piedmont region of Georgia. They secured the land, not to save it from developers, but to give something for bear hunters to kill.

    In the first legal hunt 10% of the black bear population was killed.

    Hunters are an effective lobby. At least the habitat was saved.

  3. jamesrobertsmith Says:

    My point about the gun nuts standing in the way of caribou reintroduction had nothing to do with their desire or ability to hunt them eventually. But largely with the fact that to get the population well established you would need to implement hunting restrictions on a large area for a while. Such as with the elk in NC. You’re not allowed to shoot them until such time as the herd is of sufficient number for culls. Hunters don’t generally put up with these restrictions in areas where they didn’t previously exist. In the case of the NC elk, the principle herds were introduced into the National Park where there already was no hunting allowed.

    As has been shown with elk reintroduction, predation on fawns from coyotes and bears falls off sharply once the deer in question learn that they can generally scare them off or fight them off. Woodland caribou existed for many hundreds of thousands of years in the company of both those carnivores. It’s just a case of having to learn the ropes. The first two years in the Great Smokies, the elk herds lost every single fawn to bears and coyotes. Since that time, though, the mother elk have learned that they can fight off the bears and coyotes. Now they have almost no predatory fawn deaths.

  4. markgelbart Says:

    Maine probably didn’t throw enough money into the caribou re-introduction program.

    Contrary to popular opinion, throwing money at problems usually solves them.

  5. jamesrobertsmith Says:

    Indeed it does. For the price of a couple of stealth bombers we could have several large, new National Parks. But that’s where our priorities lie.

    I forgot to mention…too bad about the cave. Too bad the paleontological research was so botches, and too bad it’s under threat of total destruction. But once again…that’s where our priorities lie.

  6. Wondering about Reindeer Moss | TrekOhio Says:

    […] About 24,000 years ago the Wisconsinan ice sheet expanded into Ohio. Central Ohio was buried under 1000 feet of ice (305 m). Near Lake Erie, the ice was five times thicker. As the ice sheet expanded southwards, all forests in its path were ground to a pulp. Animals from Canada gradually moved southwards, as did plants and other organisms. Since the ice sheet only covered two-thirds of our state, the unglaciated, southeastern portion of Ohio became a habitat for reindeer. But reindeer didn’t stop at Ohio’s southern border. Because of the colder climate, they moved far into the south. For instance, Mark Gelbart has published an interesting article about Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in Pleistocene Georgia. […]

  7. Ken Garcia Says:

    hi Mr. Gelbart- I live in N AL and was wondering where Bell Cave is located ? I can’t find any info on it. Don’t want to visit it, just curious how far from my place.

  8. Don Gribble Says:

    Hi Mark,
    I see you have referenced a caribou fossil find in Charleston SC. I have no other reference to this artifact. I am familiar with the Bell and Yarbrough Cave finds but not Charleston.
    Could you please point me to where I can find more information about this find.

    • markgelbart Says:

      A caribou specimen near Charleston was first noted in a paper co-authored by J.N. Mcdonald in 1996, but he incorrectly reported the exact location of this specimen. This was corrected by Albert Sanders in his book, Additions to the Pleistocene Mammal Faunas of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. I think you can find a used copy on Vance McCollum found a lower left 4th premolar of a caribou in 1981 in a spoil pile bordered by Chandler Bridge Creek cy County Road 377 (Jamison Road). The sediments were excavated from the Wando Formation. The tooth closely matches that of a large male caribou specimen from the collections of the U.S. National Museum. Caribou specimens have also been found on the continental shelf 13 miles off Currituck Beach, North Carolina, and a caribou antler was found near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

  9. Don Gribble Says:

    Thanks Mark,
    I appreciate your quick response. The hunt is on.
    I am part of a paleolithic research team at the Canadian Museum of History under Dr Bryan Gordon, working on the caribou of the Appalachians and their range change on up through Ontario ca 12-10kya C14 and on to Ungava.
    You also mentioned being in touch with Robert Martin. I have not been able to locate him for similar questions. Could you put me in touch with him?
    Feel free to contact me directly if you have any insights or questions.

  10. Richard Michael Gramly Says:

    Mark —
    Regarding Yarbrough Cave, I have learned that two flaked stone points were discovered along the upper margin of biologist Martin’s excavation within the “Peccary Room.” Both specimens might be quite old — perhaps even older than Clovis. Their discoverer is DAVID BROCK who lived near Atlanta, Georgia. I was wondering if 1) you know of these finds, and 2) where David Brock may be found. I would dearly love to inspect the pieces myself although I do have information about them, which has been furnished by J. Ledbetter.
    Can you help?
    Yours sincerely,
    Richard Michael Gramly, PhD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: