American bison are large mammals that are also commonly referred to as “bison,” “American buffalo,” or simply “buffalo.” These references can be quite confusing, as they are not closely related to African or Asian buffalo. Despite this, it is not necessarily considered incorrect to call them buffalo, but it does complicate understanding. This large mammal once roamed North American grasslands in immense herds, but their populations have since been reduced greatly in number. Read on to learn about the American bison.
Description of the American Bison
These creatures look somewhat like a large cow, and are in the same family, Bovidae. They have thick brown coats that shed during the summer. Males are somewhat larger than females, tending to weigh quite a bit more. Both sexes do, however, possess horns atop their large heads, unlike some members of the Bovidae family. These horns are short, and curve upwards away from the face.
Interesting Facts About the American Bison
These large mammals are an iconic species that were famously slaughtered by the thousands during the 19th century. Learn more about why these creatures are intriguing, and worth preserving, below.
- Serious Destruction – Sadly for American bison, the 19th century slaughter was no joke. Scientists estimate that, prior to commercial hunting, approximately 30 – 60 million bison ranged from Canada to northern Mexico. By 1890 only 1,000 bison were left standing.
- Commercial Value – This mass destruction was fueled by a need for easy prey. These creatures are the largest native mammals on North America, weighing as much as 2,000 lbs. – a whole ton! – in the wild. That is a lot of meat and fur! Unfortunately, gluttony and greed caused serious population decline in the species.
- Hump Day – Much of their mass comes from their large hump. Situated above the shoulders, their hump is supported by long vertebrae. Unlike camels, which store fat in their humps, bison humps are composed of strong muscle. This muscle helps them plow through the snow to find food.
- Domestic Distribution – The implementation of domestic cattle, and the semi-domestication of American bison, have not failed to impact wild populations. In fact, there are very few bison in the wild today that do not contain some type of domestic cattle genes. The only population that has not bred with domestic cattle at any time is the population in Yellowstone National Park.
Habitat of the American Bison
This species is most commonly found on open plains. They also frequent river valleys, grasslands, semiarid lands, and prairies. In the past these creatures have also inhabited semi-wooded areas, but they are not frequently found in wooded areas currently. Some will also roam into foothills and mountainous areas, though they are not considered to be high-altitude creatures.
Distribution of the American Bison
The true distribution of this species is difficult to pinpoint, mainly because the vast majority range on private and government-owned land. While there are approximately 500,000 animals kept contained on private land, only 15,000 are estimated to be truly wild and free-range. Historically this species roamed from northern Mexico to Canada, but today they are restricted to tiny pockets of habitat. There is a herd in Mexico, a number of fragmented herds in the United States, and a number of fragmented herds in Canada.
Diet of the American Bison
Bison are herbivorous mammals, which means that they feed primarily on plants. They are mostly grazers that eat grasses and sedges rather than searching for fruit or other plants. This means that during the winter food can be hard to come by as it gets blanketed in snow. When snow covers the grasses, these massive creatures use their muscular necks to scrape down to the buried food below.
American Bison and Human Interaction
Humans have obliterated wild bison populations. Midwest Native Americans hunted these creatures in sustainable numbers, but once Europeans arrived, the bison populations began to become over utilized. Hunts were used to increase economic activity in an area, and usually resulted in the slaughter of entire herds.
When a herd member was injured or killed, instead of fleeing, the rest of the herd would gather around the animal, making them easy targets as well. Quickly the U.S. Government became involved and heavily endorsed the massacre of American bison populations. They encouraged hunting to decrease competition for cattle grazing, and to remove the primary prey of the Native Americans. By removing their food source, the Europeans were able to force Native Americans into reservations.
The vast majority of the remaining population of this species is privately raised for human consumption. They are considered semi-domesticated because their domestication has not undergone as long of a process as domestic cattle. Their meat is lower in fat than beef, and higher in protein. This species is also commonly hybridized with domestic cattle for consumption purposes.
Does the American Bison Make a Good Pet
Truly wild bison (without domestic cattle genetics mixed in) do not make good pets. They are extremely large, unruly, and difficult to contain. The domesticated populations make slightly better pets, but are not intended for this purpose. They are bred for consumption and meat production, not docile temperament.
American Bison Care
In human care, these creatures must have extremely secure enclosures. Domestic cattle are known to destroy fences, and the much larger American bison is no exception! They are heavy, and can quite easily pull down a fence if distressed. These animals are also known to jump over fences as high as 6 ft. tall! Thus, keeping them in a secure, appropriately enclosed pasture is essential. They must also be provided enough space to graze, and provided supplemental hay if necessary.
Behavior of the American Bison
This species is extremely social and largely diurnal. This means that they are most active during the day. Vast herds can accumulate, especially during migrations. During the summer, these creatures will exhibit short, daily migrations from sleeping grounds to feeding grounds. Over the winter they will migrate to areas where food is more plentiful. Once breeding season rolls around the males begin to battle with one another for control of breeding harems.
Reproduction of the American Bison
A single male will guard a herd of females from other males, so only he can breed with them. They mate in August and September, and the calves are born 285 days later. Most females, known as “cows,” give birth to a single calf. She will nurse the calf for at least 7 months, but sometimes as long as 18 months. The calves reach sexual maturity at about 3 years old.
Beliefs, Superstitions, and Phobias About the American Bison
The American bison is an important species to many Native American tribes, particularly the Plains Indians. These large mammals are both a religious symbol and sacred animal to the Native Americans, and they are used in a number of religious ceremonies. When hunting bison, Native Americans would utilize the entire animal. Meat, hides, and bones were incredibly important as food, clothing, teepees, and tools.