Alexandria College biology class attends lab at Runestone Museum

"Bones in the area can tell us what was here," said Museum Director Amanda Seim. "Every bone can tell you a unique and different story."

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A 10,000 to 12,000-year-old mastodon tooth found near Alexandria is on display while biology students from Alexandria Technical and Community College attend a lab at the Runestone Museum on Wednesday, March. 15.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

ALEXANDRIA — Nine biology students and their teacher from Alexandria Technical And Community College attended a lab on Wednesday, March 15, at the Runestone Museum on fossilized bones discovered in the area.

"Bones in the area can tell us what was here," said Museum Director Amanda Seim. "Every bone can tell you a unique and different story."

Seim explained that if you look at a skull of a wild wolf, more often than not the orbital bone on the skull will be broken or damaged because of its chances of being kicked by a hooved prey. A wolf born and raised in captivity would not have that bone broken.

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Biology students from Alexandria College, Meghan Goulet, left, and Ellen Panther examine a bone at the Runestone Museum on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

The bones the students studied come from bison, mastodons, and mammoths all found in Douglas County— Kensington, Carlos and Alexandria. They are a part of the museum's Ice Age exhibit.

The students handled the bones to feel their weight and texture while Seim explained where and how they were found.


Some of the bison bones estimated to be nearly 500 years old were discovered in Lake Victoria in 2011 by Alexandria fishing guide Roger Van Surksum. To date, Lake Victoria is the only active archaeology site in Alexandria, according to Seim.

He tugged his line and reeled it in slowly. It was a big one, he thought. When Alexandria fishing guide Roger Van Surksum, 64, finally got to the end of the line, he found something many would dread. The creature on the hook was not a walleye or ...

Seim explained that the Lake Victoria site was possibly used for "bison runs" which is why it is classified as an archaeology site. Archaeology is the study of artifacts — things that came as the result of humans. If the bison died due to natural causes then the bones would be considered specimens that would be studied by paleontologists rather than archaeologists.

"They found hundreds and hundreds of bison bones that had obviously been used with some sort of tool. (Bison runs) are to make sure the animals go somewhere where it is easy to kill. It's not like the movies where they run them off a cliff. They wouldn't do that because then (the bison) would be un-usable—You don't know what the condition the bones would be in and you don't know the conditions of the hide would be in," said Seim. "The whole point of killing something is to use everything for its resources."

Rather than cliffs, those operating a bison run would lead the animals into a river or lake where their movements are limited, making them easier to kill.

As if the summer sun and breath of breeze roused them once more, the bones crackled softly in the morning light. One could almost glimpse ancient bison rising to their feet, scraping their hooves across the dirt and rotating their mighty heads to...

Seim said bison roamed the Douglas County area until about 500 years ago when they were pushed West. She went on to explain that one of the biggest refuges for bison is Yellowstone National Park but they are not the original modern-day bison.

"A lot of them have been cross-bred with other Bovinae (an animal in the cattle group) so that they survive," Seim said. "Bison, like the wolf, had a long history in this area— now the state of Minnesota — and both were nearly extinct."

After students examined the Lake Victoria bison bones, Seim had them handle a much older bison bone — bison antiquus, a larger extinct species of bison that lived until around 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, also found in the Alexandria area. Students noticed the older bison bone is much heavier and darker in color due to mineralization. Seim said weight is a good indicator when determining age.

Students also learned about mammoth and mastodon bones also found in the area. One of he mastodon bones featured at the museum came from the animal's pelvic area and was found near Kensington.


"Mastodons and mammoths went extinct around the same time but mastodons were around millions of years longer before mammoths," said Seim. "Mastodons were the ones who were a lot lower (than mammoths) and could be in the woodlands. They used their hump and head to shovel through snow and woods."

The museum also has a tooth of a mastodon. Their molar teeth have pointed cones for eating woody plants while mammoth teeth were flatter since they grazed on grass.

"Teeth are really important not just for animal knowledge but also human knowledge. It lasts the longest and tells a lot of stories," said Seim. "What you ate tells a lot of stories about how things lived."

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Runestone Museum Director Amanda Seim gave a lecture on bones found in Douglas County to a biology class from Alexandria College.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

The students then watched a video about the importance of studying bones and the controversies between scientists of different studies that come when they disagree on how to properly attribute age to a specimen or artifact.

Since science and history are changing as new discoveries are made, Seim encouraged the students to be curious, ask questions and form their own theories to study.

"Controversy doesn't have to breed anger. Controversy can breed curiosity," said Seim. "We encourage you to do your own research... We don't want to influence opinion. We want people to get interested and excited about history and to ask questions."

After the bone lecture, the students toured the museum and were given passes for them and a guest to come back and visit the museum.

"It's really a hands-on experience for (the students) that puts together all the pieces they have been learning about," said Jessica Wade-Ferrell, biology instructor from Alexandria Technical and Community College. "You can tell a lot of things from the bones and teeth."


Wade-Ferrell says she appreciates this experience because it allows students to gain hand on experience.

"I think it went well. It was a good group," said Seim. "Our mission is to reach out through education and community events. Anytime (students) can get a hands-on or in-person visual, it makes more impact than on screen."

Nathan Douvier, 20, of Melrose and a second-year student at ATCC who plans on studying forensics, said his biggest takeaway was how important bones are for telling stories of the animals. Emma Bugher, 18, of Alexandria who plans on studying biology at the University of Minnesota Morris said studying the bones really puts into perspective how old life truly is.

Seim added that it was fun to see the students become interested and familiar with local history.

Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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