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American Bison
B. b. bison
Alternate image
Historic drawing
Bison call audio
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Genus: Bison
Species: B. bison
Binomial name
Bison bison
(Linnaeus, 1758)

B. b. athabascae
B. b. bison


Bos americanus
Bos bison
Bison bison montanae

The American Bison (Bison bison) is a North American species of bison, also commonly known as the American Buffalo. Some consider the term "buffalo" somewhat of a misnomer for this animal, as it is only distantly related to either of the two "true buffaloes", the Asian Water Buffalo and the African Buffalo. However, "bison" is a Greek word meaning ox-like animal, while "buffalo" originated with the French fur trappers who called these massive beasts bœufs, meaning ox or bullock – so both names, "bison" and "buffalo," have a similar meaning. In reference to this animal, the term "buffalo," which dates to 1635, has a much longer history than the term "bison," which was first recorded in 1774.[2] The American Bison is more closely related to the Wisent or European Bison.

These bison once roamed the grasslands of North America in massive herds; their range roughly formed a triangle between the Great Bear Lake in Canada's far northwest, south to the Mexican states of Durango and Nuevo León, and east along the western boundary of the Appalachian Mountains.[3] Two subspecies or ecotypes have been described: the Plains Bison (Bison bison bison), smaller in size and with a more rounded hump, and the Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae) – the larger of the two and having a taller, square hump.[4][5][6][7][8][9] Furthermore, it has been suggested that the Plains Bison consists of a northern (Bison bison montanae) and a southern subspecies, bringing the total to three.[7] However, this is generally not supported. The Wood Bison is one of the largest species of cattle in the world, surpassed by only the Asian gaur and Wild Asian Water Buffalo. It is the largest extant land animal in North America.



A bison has a shaggy, long, dark brown winter coat, and a lighter weight, lighter brown summer coat. Bison can reach up to 6 feet 6 inches (2 m) tall, 10 feet (3 m) long, and weigh 900 to 2,200 pounds (410 to 1,000 kg). As typical in ungulates, the male bison is slightly larger than the female. The biggest specimens on record have weighed as much as 2,500 pounds (1,100 kg). The heads and forequarters are massive, and both sexes have short, curved horns, which they use in fighting for status within the herd and for defense.

Skulls of European bison (left) and American bison (right)

Bison are herbivores, grazing on the grasses and sedges of the North American prairies. They eat in the morning and evening, and rest during the day. Bison mate in August and September; gestation is 285 days. A single reddish-brown calf, born the following spring, nurses for a year. Bison are mature at three years of age, and have a life expectancy of approximately 15 years in the wild and up to 25 years in captivity.

For the first three months of life, juveniles are lighter in color than mature bison. One very rare condition is the white buffalo, in which the calf turns entirely white. White bison are considered sacred by many Native Americans.

Differences from European bison

Although they are superficially similar, the American and European bison exhibit a number of physical and behavioral differences. The American species has 15 ribs, while the European bison has 14. The American bison has four lumbar vertebrae, while the European has five.[10] Adult American bison are not as rangy in build, and have shorter legs.[11] American bison tend to graze more, and browse less than their European cousins, due to their necks being set differently. Compared to the nose of the American bison, that of the European species is set farther forward than the forehead when the neck is in a neutral position. The body of the American bison is hairier, though its tail has less hair than that of the European bison. The horns of the European bison point forward through the plane of its face, making it more adept at fighting through the interlocking of horns in the same manner as domestic cattle, unlike the American bison which favors charging.[12] American bison are more easily tamed than their European cousins, and breed more readily with domestic cattle .[13]

Range and population

There are approximately 500,000 bison in captive commercial populations (mostly plains bison) on about 4,000 privately owned ranches. Under the IUCN Red List Guidelines, commercial herds are not eligible for consideration in determining a Red List designation, therefore the total population of bison calculated in conservation herds is approximately 30,000 individuals and the mature population consists of approximately 20,000 individuals. Of the total number presented, only 15,000 total individuals are considered wild bison in the natural range within North America (free-ranging, not confined primarily by fencing)[14].

An American Bison near a hot spring or fumarole in Yellowstone National Park

Bison are now raised for meat and hides. Over 250,000 of the 350,000 remaining bison are being raised for human consumption. Bison meat is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef,[15] a fact which has led to the development of beefalo, a fertile cross-breed of bison and domestic cattle. In 2005, about 35,000 bison were processed for meat in the U.S., with the National Bison Association and USDA providing a "Certified American Buffalo" program with birth-to-consumer tracking of bison via RFID ear tags. There is even a market for kosher bison meat; these bison are slaughtered at one of the few kosher mammal slaughterhouses in the U.S., and the meat is then distributed nationwide.

American bison grazing in Custer State Park in South Dakota.

Bison are found in both publicly and privately held herds. Custer State Park in South Dakota is home to 1,500 bison, one of the largest publicly held herds in the world. Wildlife officials believe that free roaming and genetically pure herds on public lands in North America can be found only in Yellowstone National Park, Henry Mountains in Utah, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, and on Elk Island in Alberta, Canada.

Recent genetic studies of privately owned herds of bison show that many of them include animals with genes from domestic cattle. For example, the herd on Santa Catalina Island, isolated since 1924 after being brought there for a movie shoot, were found to be mostly crossbreeds.[16] It is estimated that there are as few as 12,000 to 15,000 pure bison in the world. The numbers are uncertain because the tests used to date – mitochondrial DNA analysis – indicate only if the maternal line (back from mother to mother... ) ever included bovines and thus say nothing about male input in the process. It was found that most hybrids look exactly like purebred bison - therefore, looks were not a good indicator of genetics.

A proposal known as Buffalo Commons has been suggested by a handful of academics and policymakers to restore large parts of the drier portion of the Great Plains to native prairie grazed by bison. Proponents argue that current agricultural use of the shortgrass prairie is not sustainable, pointing to periodic disasters including the Dust Bowl and continuing significant human population loss over the last 60 years. However, this plan is opposed by most who live in the areas in question.

Behavior and ecology

Bison are mostly grazers, with both male and female herds migrating in parallel with the seasons and annual grasses. Bison can eat most of the grass in an area in a short time and thus have to keep migrating to feed more of the entire herd.

Social behavior and reproduction

Bison cow and calf in a maternal herd.

Female bison live in maternal herds which include other females and their offspring. Male offspring leave their maternal herd when around three years old and will either live alone or join other males in bachelor herds. Male and female herds do not mingle until the breeding season.

Bison are polygamous. During the breeding season, dominant bulls maintain a small harem of females for mating. Individual bulls "tend" cows until allowed to mate, by following them around and chasing away rival males. The tending bull will shield the female's vision with his body so she will not see any other challenging males. A challenging bull may bellow or roar to get a female's attention and the tending bull has to bellow/roar back. The most dominant bulls mate in the first 2-3 weeks of the season. More subordinate bulls will mate with any remaining estrous cow that has not mated yet. Male bison play no part in raising the young.

Bison herds have dominance hierarchies that exist for both males and females. A bison's dominance is related to its birth date. Bison that are born earlier in the breeding season are more likely to be larger and more dominant as adults. Thus bison are able to pass on their dominance to their offspring as dominant bison breed earlier in the season. In addition to dominance, the older bison of a generation also have a higher fertility rate than the younger ones.

Homosexual behavior – including courtship and mounting between bulls – is common among bison. The Mandan nation Okipa festival concludes with a ceremonial enactment of this behavior, to "ensure the return of the buffalo in the coming season." Inter-sexual bison also occur. The Lakota refer to them as pte winktepte meaning bison and winkte designating two-spirit – thereby drawing an explicit parallel between transgenderism in animals and people.[17]

Wallowing behavior

A bison is taking a dust bath in a wallow in Yellowstone National Park.

A bison wallow is a shallow depression in the soil, which was used either wet or dry. Bison roll in these depressions, covering themselves with dust or mud. Past explanations and current hypotheses suggested for wallowing behavior include grooming behavior associated with shedding, male-male interaction (typically rutting behavior), social behavior for group cohesion, play behavior, relief from skin irritation due to biting insects; reduction of ectoparasite (tick and lice) load; and thermoregulation.[18]


An American Bison standing its ground against a wolf pack

In some areas, wolves are a major predator of bison. Wolf predation typically peaks in late spring and early summer, with attacks usually being concentrated on cows and calves. Observations have shown that wolves actively target herds with calves over ones with none. Bison display five apparent defense strategies in protecting calves from wolves. These include running to a cow, running to a herd, running to the nearest bull, run in the front or center of a stampeding herd, and entering water bodies such as lakes or rivers. When fleeing wolves in open areas, cows with young calves take the lead, while bulls take to the rear of the herds, to guard the cows' escape. The length of a bison hunt varies, ranging from lasting a few minutes to 11 hours. Bison typically ignore wolves not displaying hunting behavior.[19] Packs specializing in bison tend to have a greater number of males, as their superior size to the females allows them to wrestle bison to the ground more effectively.[20] The Grizzly Bear can also pose a threat to calves and sometimes adult bison.

Hunting and legal status

A bison hunt depicted by George Catlin.

American Bison were hunted for centuries by the Plains Indians, initially through driving the bison on foot into corrals or over cliffs. After the arrival of Europeans, the Plains Indians were able to hunt the bison by horse.

As European-descended populations began to press west from the eastern portions of the United States in the 19th century, the bison population was hunted heavily. Americans hunted the buffalo for skins, leaving the meat to rot,[21] in some cases allegedly with the specific intent of depriving the Plains Indians of a food source.[22]

A pile of bison skulls in the 1870s.

Per historian Pekka Hämäläinen, Native Americans also contributed to the collapse of the bison, with the Comanche alone killing 280,000 bison a year by the 1830s, near the limits of sustainability.[23] A long and intense drought further increased the pressure on the bison population.[23]

At the end of the 19th century, conservationists – alarmed by the decline of the buffalo – began to take measures to preserve the population, despite lack of support from the United States government. Conservationists such as James "Scotty" Philip acquired buffalo and bred them on private land in hopes of reintroducing the species.

Canada, the United States and Mexico list bison nationally as both wildlife and domestic livestock. Legal status varies among State and Provincial jurisdictions. In Canada, four provinces and two territories list bison as both wildlife and livestock. Bison are listed by 20 states in the United States; 10 states list bison as wildlife and all 20 list them as livestock[14]. In the modern day, bison hunting is allowed in limited areas to cull herds to target population, and to prevent wild bison from mingling with (and thus sharing diseases with) domestic herds. Bison are legally hunted in the American states of Wyoming and Montana, and the Canadian province of Alberta.

Bison trails

The first thoroughfares of North America, except for the time-obliterated paths of mastodon or muskox and the routes of the Mound Builders, were the traces made by bison and deer in seasonal migration and between feeding grounds and salt licks. Many of these routes, hammered by countless hoofs instinctively following watersheds and the crests of ridges in avoidance of lower places' summer muck and winter snowdrifts, were followed by the Indians as courses to hunting grounds and as warriors' paths. They were invaluable to explorers and were adopted by pioneers.

Bison traces were characteristically north and south, but several key east-west trails were used later as railways. Some of these include the Cumberland Gap, from the Potomac River through the Allegheny divide to the Ohio River headwaters, and through the Blue Ridge Mountains to upper Kentucky. A heavily used trace crossed the Ohio River at the Falls of the Ohio and ran west, crossing the Wabash River near Vincennes, Indiana. In Senator Thomas Hart Benton's phrase saluting these sagacious path-makers, the bison paved the way for the railroads to the Pacific.[24]

Bison as a symbol

The 1935 buffalo nickel – this style of coin featuring an American bison was produced from 1913 to 1938.
2005 Nickel, Obverse
2005 Nickel, Reverse
The 2005 Nickel featured an American bison, reminiscent of the older buffalo nickel design.
2006 American Buffalo Proof Obverse
2006 American Buffalo Proof Reverse
The American Buffalo, also known as a gold buffalo, is a 24-karat gold bullion coin first issued in 2006 and designed after the Indian Head nickel.
American Bison on the obverse of the 1901 $10 bill.
Wyoming uses a bison in its state flag.

The American bison is often used in North America in official seals, flags, and logos. In the United States, the American Bison is a popular symbol in the Great Plains states. Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming have adopted the animal as their official state mammal, and many sports teams have chosen the bison as their mascot. In Canada, the bison is the official animal of the province of Manitoba and appears on the Manitoba flag. It is also used in the official coat of arms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Several American coins feature the bison, perhaps most famously on the reverse side of the "buffalo nickel" from 1913 to 1938. In 2005, the United States Mint coined a nickel with a new depiction of the bison as part of its "Westward Journey" series. The Kansas and North Dakota state quarters, part of the "50 State Quarter" series, each feature bison. The Kansas state quarter has only the bison and does not feature any writing, while the North Dakota state quarter has two bison.

Other institutions which have adopted the bison as a symbol or mascot include:


Bison can leap a standard 36 inch barbed-wire fence with ease, as seen here near Lake George, Colorado.

Bison are among the most dangerous animals encountered by visitors to the various U.S. and Canadian National Parks, especially Yellowstone National Park. Although they are not carnivorous, they will attack humans if provoked. They appear slow because of their lethargic movements, but they can easily outrun humans—they have been observed running as fast as 35 miles per hour (56 km/h). Between 1978 and 1992, nearly five times as many people in Yellowstone National Park were killed or injured by bison as by bears (12 by bears, 56 by bison). Bison are also more agile than one might expect, given the animal's size and body structure.

See also


  1. ^ Gates, C. & Aune, K (2008). Bison bison. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 10 November 2008.Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is of Near threatened.
  2. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
  3. ^
  4. ^ Geist V. (1991). "Phantom subspecies: the wood bison, Bison bison "athabascae" Rhoads 1897, is not a valid taxon, but an ecotype.". Arctic 44 (4): 283–300. 
  5. ^ Kay, Charles E.; Clifford A. White (2001). "Reintroduction of bison into the Rocky Mountain parks of Canada: historical and archaeological evidence". Crossing Boundaries in Park Management: Proceedings of the 11th Conference on Research and Resource Management in Parks and on Public Lands. Hancock, Michigan: The George Wright Society, Inc.. pp. 143–51. Retrieved December 2, 2009. 
  6. ^ Bork, A. M., C. M. Strobeck, F. C. Yeh, R. J. Hudson, & R. K. Salmon (1991). "Genetic relationship of wood and plains bison based on restriction fragment length polymorphisms". Can J Zool 69 (1): 43–48. doi:10.1139/z91-007. 
  7. ^ a b Halbert, Natalie D., Terje Raudsepp, Bhanu P. Chowdhary, & James N. Derr (2004). "Conservation Genetic Analysis of the Texas State Bison Herd". Journal of Mammalogy 85 (5): 924–931. doi:10.1644/BER-029. 
  8. ^ Wilson, G. A., & C. Strobeck (1999). "Genetic variation within and relatedness among wood and plains bison populations". Genome 42 (3): 483–96. doi:10.1139/gen-42-3-483. PMID 10382295. 
  9. ^ Boyd, Delaney P. (April 2003). Conservation of North American Bison: Status and Recommendations (MS thesis). University of Calgary. OCLC 232117310. Retrieved February 23, 2010. 
  10. ^ The Penny Cyclopædia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge by Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Great Britain), published by C. Knight, 1835
  11. ^ Trophy Bowhunting: Plan the Hunt of a Lifetime and Bag One for the Record Books, by Rick Sapp, Edition: illustrated, published by Stackpole Books, 2006, ISBN 0811733157, 9780811733151
  12. ^ American Bison: A Natural History, By Dale F. Lott, Harry W. Greene, ebrary, Inc, Contributor Harry W. Greene, Edition: illustrated, Published by University of California Press, 2003 ISBN 0520240626, 9780520240629
  13. ^ Zoologist: A Monthly Journal of Natural History, By Edward Newman, James Edmund Harting, Published by J. Van Voorst, 1859
  14. ^ a b The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (version 2009.1) - Bison bison
  15. ^
  16. ^ Chang, Alicia (2007-09-21). "Study: Catalina bison aren't purebred". USA Today (Associated Press). Retrieved 2008-03-14. 
  17. ^ Bagemihl, Bruce (2006). Whole Earth. 
  18. ^ McMillan, Brock R.; Cottam, Michael R.; Kaufman, Donald W. (July 2000). "Wallowing Behavior of American Bison (Bos Bison) in Tallgrass Prairie: An Examination of Alternate Explanations". American Midland Naturalist 144 (1): 159–67. doi:10.1674/0003-0031(2000)144[0159:WBOABB2.0.CO;2]. 
  19. ^ Carbyn LN, Trottier T (December 1988). "Descriptions of Wolf Attacks on Bison Calves in Wood Buffalo National Park". Arctic 41 (4): 297–302. 
  20. ^ Bigger is better if you're a hungry wolf, by BRETT FRENCH Of The Billings Gazette
  21. ^ Records, Laban (March 1995). Cherokee Outlet Cowboy: Recollectioons of Laban S. Records. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0806126944. 
  22. ^ Moulton, M (1995). Wildlife issues in a changing world, 2nd edition. CRC Press. 
  23. ^ a b Hämäläinen, Pekka (2008). The Comanche Empire. Yale University Press. pp. 294–299, 313. ISBN 978-0-300-12654-9. 
  24. ^ Adams, James Truslow (1940). Dictionary of American History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 0822603497. 
  25. ^


External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

Wikipedia has an article on:




An American bison


  • IPA: /ə'mɛɽɪkæn'bɪsɔn/


American bison

American bisons

American bison (plural American bisons)

  1. A bovine mammal, a species of bison, Bison bison.


Simple English

American Bison
File:American bison
American bison
Conservation status
File:Status iucn2.
Conservation Dependent
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Genus: Bison
Species: B. bison
Binomial name
Bison bison
(Linnaeus, 1758)

The American Bison is a bovine mammal, also known as the American Buffalo, or simply Buffalo, something of a misnomer as it is only distantly related to either of the two "true buffalos": the Water Buffalo and the African Buffalo. Their staple foods are grasses and sedges.


Bison are considered a keystone species they once roamed the continent in great herds, and their grazing pressure helped shape the ecology of the Great Plains. The bisons has a large head with relatively small, curving horns. Its dark brown coat is long and shaggy on the forequarters, including the front legs, neck, and shoulders, wile the rest of the body has shorter, finer hair.


Bison once roamed across much of North America. Today bison are ecologically extinct throughout most of their historic range, except for a few national parks and other small wildlife areas.

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