BISON are large, even-toed ungulates in the genus
Bison within the
Two extant and six extinct species are recognised. Of the six extinct
species, five went extinct in the
Quaternary extinction event . Bison
palaeosinensis evolved in the Early
South Asia , and
was the evolutionary ancestor of B. priscus (steppe bison ), which was
the ancestor of all other
Bison species. From 2 MYA to 6,000 BCE ,
steppe bison ranged across the mammoth steppe , inhabiting Europe and
northern Asia with B. schoetensacki (woodland bison), and North
America with B. antiquus , B. latifrons , and B. occidentalis . The
last species to go extinct, B. occidentalis, was succeeded at 3,000
BCE by B. bison.
Of the two surviving species, the
American bison , B. bison, found
only in North America, is the more numerous. Although generally known
as a BUFFALO in North America, it is only distantly related to the
true buffalo . The North American species is composed of two
Plains bison , B. b. bison, and the
Wood bison , B. b.
athabascae, which is the namesake of
Wood Buffalo National Park in
Canada. A third subspecies, the Eastern
Bison (B. b.
pennsylvanicus) is no longer considered a valid taxon , being a junior
synonym of B. b. bison. References to "Woods Bison" or "Wood Bison"
from the eastern United States confusingly refer to this subspecies,
not B. b. athabascae, which was not found in the region. The European
bison , B. bonasus, or wisent, is found in Europe and the
reintroduced after being extinct in the wild.
While all bison species are classified in their own genus , they are
sometimes bred with domestic cattle (genus Bos) and produce fertile
offspring called beefalo or zubron .
* 1 Description
* 2 Evolution and genetic history
* 3 Behavior
* 4 Habitat
* 4.1 Restrictions
* 5 Diet
* 6 Predators
* 7 Infections and illness
* 8 Name
* 10 Nutrition
* 12 See also
* 13 References
* 14 External links
Magdalenian bison on plaque, 17,000–9,000 BCE, Bédeilhac
American bison and the
European bison (Wisent) are the largest
surviving terrestrial animals in North America and Europe.
good swimmers and can cross rivers over half a mile (800 meters) wide.
They are nomadic grazers and travel in herds . The bulls leave the
herds of females at two or three years of age, and join a male herd,
which are generally smaller than female herds. Mature bulls rarely
travel alone. Towards the end of the summer, for the reproductive
season, the sexes necessarily commingle.
American bison are known for
living in the
Great Plains , but formerly had a much larger range
including much of the eastern United States and parts of Mexico. Both
species were hunted close to extinction during the 19th and 20th
centuries, but have since rebounded; the
Wisent owing its survival, in
part, to the Chernobyl Disaster, ironically, as the Chernobyl
Exclusion Zone has become a kind of wildlife preserve for
other rare megafauna such as the Przewalski\'s Horse , though poaching
has become a threat in recent years. The American
Plains bison is no
longer listed as endangered , but this does not mean the species is
secure. Genetically pure B. b. bison currently number only ~20,000,
separated into fragmented herds—all of which require active
conservation measures. The
Wood bison is on the endangered species
list in Canada and is listed as threatened in the United States,
though there have been numerous attempts by beefalo ranchers to have
it entirely removed from the
Endangered Species List .
Although superficially similar, physical and behavioural differences
exist between the American and European bison. The American species
has 15 ribs, while the
European bison has 14. The
American bison has
four lumbar vertebrae, while the European has five. (The difference
in this case is that what would be the first lumbar vertebra has ribs
attached to it in
American bison and is thus counted as the 15th
thoracic vertebra, compared to 14 thoracic vertebrae in wisent.) Adult
American bison are less slim in build and have shorter legs. American
bison tend to graze more, and browse less than their European
relatives. Their anatomies reflect this behavioural difference; the
American bison's head hangs lower than the European's. The body of the
American bison is typically hairier, though its tail has less hair
than that of the European bison. The horns of the
European bison point
through the plane of their faces, making them more adept at fighting
through the interlocking of horns in the same manner as domestic
cattle, unlike the American bison, which favours butting. American
bison are more easily tamed than their European cousins, and breed
with domestic cattle more readily.
EVOLUTION AND GENETIC HISTORY
The bovine tribe (Bovini) split about 5 to 10 million years ago into
the buffalos (
Syncerus ) and a group leading to bison and
taurine cattle. Thereafter, the family lineage of bison and taurine
cattle does not appear to be a straightforward "tree" structure as is
often depicted in much evolution, because evidence of interbreeding
and crossbreeding is seen between different species and members within
this family, even many millions of years after their ancestors
separated into different species. This crossbreeding was not
sufficient to conflate the different species back together, but it has
resulted in unexpected relationships between many members of this
group, such as yak being related to American bison, when such
relationships would otherwise not be apparent.
A 2003 study of mitochondrial DNA indicated four distinct maternal
lineages in tribe
Taurine cattle and zebu
American bison and yak and
Banteng , gaur , and gayal
However, Y chromosome analysis associated wisent and American bison.
An earlier study using amplified fragment length polymorphism
fingerprinting showed a close association of wisent with American
bison, and probably with the yak, but noted that the interbreeding of
Bovini species made determining relationships problematic.
Bison genus diverged from the lineage that led to cattle (Bos
primigenius ) at the Plio-
Pleistocene boundary in
South Asia . Two
extant and six extinct species are recognised. Of the six extinct
species, five went extinct in the
Quaternary extinction event . Three
were North American endemics :
Bison antiquus , B. latifrons , and B.
occidentalis . The fourth, B. priscus (steppe bison), ranged across
steppe environments from Western Europe, through Central Asia, East
Asia including Japan, and onto North America. The fifth, B.
schoetensacki (woodland bison), inhabited Eurasian forests , extending
from western Europe to the south of Siberia. Bisons depicted at
Cave of Altamira
Cave of Altamira
The sixth, B. palaeosinensis, evolving in the Early
South Asia , is presumed to have been the evolutionary ancestor of B.
priscus and all successive
Bison lineages. The steppe bison (B.
priscus) evolved from
Bison palaeosinensis in the Early
B. priscus is seen clearly in the fossil record around 2 million years
ago. The steppe bison spread across Eurasia, and all proceeding
contemporary and successive species are believed to have derived from
the steppe bison. Going extinct in 6,000 BCE, outlasted only by B.
occidentalis , B. bonansus and B. bison , the steppe bison was the
predominant bison pictured in the ancient cave paintings of Spain and
European bison is likely to have arisen from the steppe
bison. There is no direct fossil evidence of successive species
between the steppe bison and the European bison, though there are
three possible lines of ancestry pertaining to the European wisent.
Past research has suggested that the
European bison is descended from
bison that had migrated from Asia to North America, and then back to
Europe, where they crossbred with existing steppe bison. However,
more recent phylogenetic research points to an origin either form the
phenotypically and genetically similar
Pleistocene woodland bison (B.
schoetensacki) or the result of an interbreeding event between the
steppe bison and the aurochs (
Bos primigenius), the ancestor of
domesticated cattle, around 120,000 years ago. The possible hybrid is
referred to in vernacular as the 'Higgs bison' as a hat-tip to the
discovery process of the
Higgs boson .
At one point, some steppe bison crossbred with the ancestors of the
modern yak. After that crossbreeding, a population of steppe bison
Bering Land Bridge to North America. The steppe bison
spread through the northern parts of North America and lived in
Eurasia until around 11,000 years ago and North America until 4,000
to 8,000 years ago.
Pleistocene woodland bison (B.schoetensacki) evolved in the
Pleistocene from B. priscus, and tended to inhabit the dry
conifer forests and woodland which lined the mammoth steppe ,
occupying a range from western Europe to the south of Siberia.
Although their fossil records are far rarer than their antecedent,
they are thought to have existed until at least 36,000 BCE.
Bison latifrons (the "giant" or "longhorn" bison) is thought to have
evolved in midcontinent North America from B. priscus, after the
steppe bison crossed into North America. Giant bison (B. latifrons)
appeared in the fossil record about 120,000 years ago. B. latifrons
was one of many species of North American megafauna that became
extinct during the transition from the
Pleistocene to the Holocene
epoch (an event referred to as the Quaternary extinction event). It is
thought to have disappeared some 21,000–30,000 years ago, during the
late Wisconsin glaciation.
B. latifrons co-existed with the slightly smaller B. antiquus for
over 100,000 years. Their predecessor, the steppe bison appeared in
the North American fossil record around 190,000 years ago. B.
latifrons is believed to have been a more woodland-dwelling,
non-herding species, while B. antiquus was a herding
grassland-dweller, very much like its descendant B. bison. B.
antiquus gave rise to both B. occidentalis , and later B. bison , the
modern American bison, some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. B. antiquus
was the most common megafaunal species on the North American continent
during much of the Late
Pleistocene and is the most commonly found
large animal found at the
La Brea Tar Pits .
In 2016, DNA extracted from
Bison priscus fossil remains beneath a
130,000-year-old volcanic ashfall in the
Yukon suggested recent
arrival of the species. That genetic material indicated that all
American bison had a common ancestor 135,000 to 195,000 years ago,
during which period the
Bering Land Bridge was exposed; this
hypothesis precludes an earlier arrival. The researchers sequenced
mitochondrial genomes from both that specimen and from the remains of
a recently discovered, estimated 120,000-year-old giant, long-horned,
B. latifrons from Snowmass, Colorado. The genetic information also
indicated that a second,
Pleistocene migration of bison over the land
bridge occurred 21,000 to 45,000 years ago. Skulls of European
bison (left) and
American bison (right)
During the population bottleneck, after the great slaughter of
American bison during the 19th century, the number of bison remaining
alive in North America declined to as low as 541. During that period,
a handful of ranchers gathered remnants of the existing herds to save
the species from extinction. These ranchers bred some of the bison
with cattle in an effort to produce "cattleo" (today called "beefalo
") Accidental crossings were also known to occur. Generally, male
domestic bulls were crossed with buffalo cows, producing offspring of
which only the females were fertile. The crossbred animals did not
demonstrate any form of hybrid vigor, so the practice was abandoned.
American bison hybrids were briefly experimented with in
Germany (and found to be fully fertile) and a herd of such animals is
maintained in Russia. A herd of cattle-wisent crossbreeds (zubron ) is
maintained in Poland. First-generation crosses do not occur naturally,
requiring caesarean delivery. First-generation males are infertile.
The U.S. National
Bison Association has adopted a code of ethics that
prohibits its members from deliberately crossbreeding bison with any
other species. In the United States, many ranchers are now using DNA
testing to cull the residual cattle genetics from their bison herds.
The proportion of cattle DNA that has been measured in introgressed
individuals and bison herds today is typically quite low, ranging from
0.56 to 1.8%.
There are also remnant purebred
American bison herds on public lands
in North America. Three herds are in
Yellowstone National Park , Wind
Cave National Park in
South Dakota and
Elk Island National Park in
Alberta, Canada . In 2015 a fourth purebred herd of 350 individuals
was identified on public lands in the
Henry Mountains of southern Utah
via genetic testing of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. This study,
published in 2015, also showed the
Henry Mountains bison herd to be
free of brucellosis , a bacterial disease that was imported with
non-native domestic cattle to North America.
A group of images by
Eadweard Muybridge , set to motion to
illustrate the movement of the bison A bison charges an elk at
Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge .
Wallowing is a common behavior of bison. A bison wallow is a shallow
depression in the soil, either wet or dry.
Bison roll in these
depressions, covering themselves with mud or dust. Possible
explanations suggested for wallowing behavior include grooming
behavior associated with moulting, male-male interaction (typically
rutting behavior), social behavior for group cohesion, play behavior,
relief from skin irritation due to biting insects, reduction of
ectoparasite load (ticks and lice ), and thermoregulation. In the
process of wallowing, bison may become infected by the fatal disease
anthrax , which may occur naturally in the soil.
Bison temperament is often unpredictable. They usually appear
peaceful, unconcerned, even lazy, yet they may attack anything, often
without warning or apparent reason. They can move at speeds up to 35
mph (56 km/h) and cover long distances at a lumbering gallop.
Their most obvious weapons are the horns borne by both males and
females, but their massive heads can be used as battering rams,
effectively using the momentum produced by what is a typical weight of
2,000 pounds (900 kg) (can be up to 2700 lbs) moving at 30 mph (50
km/h). The hind legs can also be used to kill or maim with devastating
effect. In the words of early naturalists, they were dangerous, savage
animals that feared no other animal and in prime condition could best
any foe (except for wolves and brown bears ).
The rutting, or mating, season lasts from June through September,
with peak activity in July and August. At this time, the older bulls
rejoin the herd, and fights often take place between bulls. The herd
exhibits much restlessness during breeding season. The animals are
belligerent, unpredictable, and most dangerous.
"Last of the Canadian Buffaloes", 1902, photograph: Steele and
American bison live in river valleys, and on prairies and plains.
Typical habitat is open or semiopen grasslands, as well as sagebrush,
semiarid lands, and scrublands. Some lightly wooded areas are also
known historically to have supported bison. They also graze in hilly
or mountainous areas where the slopes are not steep. Though not
particularly known as high-altitude animals, bison in the Yellowstone
Park bison herd are frequently found at elevations above 8,000 feet
Henry Mountains bison herd is found on the plains around the
Henry Mountains, Utah, as well as in mountain valleys of the Henry
Mountains to an altitude of 10,000 feet.
European bison tend to live in lightly wooded to fully wooded areas
and areas with increased shrubs and bushes, though they can also live
on grasslands and plains.
Throughout most of their historical range, landowners have sought
restrictions on free-ranging bison. Herds on private land are required
be fenced in. In the state of Montana, free-ranging bison on public
lands may be shot, due to concerns about transmission of disease to
cattle and damage to public property. In 2013, Montana legislative
measures concerning the bison were proposed and passed by Republicans,
but opposed by Native American tribes as they impinged on sovereign
tribal rights. Three such bills were vetoed by Steve Bullock , the
Democratic governor of Montana. The bison's circumstances remain an
issue of contention between Native American tribes and private
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A bison and an elk grazing together in the Yellowstone National
Bison are herbivores and eat simple foods. They generally rest during
the day and graze in the mornings and the evenings. The bison's main
foodstuff is grass and sedges , though they will also eat any
available low-lying shrubbery. In the winter, bison forage for grass
under the snow. If little grass is available, they will eat the twigs
Bison are notably better browsers than cattle, since cattle
are more obligate grazers, though wood bison have also been described
as "obligate grazers".
Wisent tend to browse on shrubs and
low-hanging trees more often than do the American bison, which prefer
grass to shrubbery and trees.
Wolves hunting bison
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Due to their size, bison have few predators. Four notable exceptions
are the grey wolf , human , brown bear , and coyote . The grey wolf
generally takes down a bison while in a pack, but cases of a single
wolf killing bison have been reported.
Brown bear also consume bison,
often by driving off the pack and consuming the wolves' kill. Brown
bear and coyotes also prey on bison calves. Historically and
prehistorically, lions , tigers ,
Homotherium , cave hyenas
Homo sp. had posed threats to bison.
INFECTIONS AND ILLNESS
For the American bison, the main cause of illness is malignant
catarrhal fever , though brucellosis is a serious concern in the
Yellowstone Park bison herd.
Bison in the Antelope Island bison herd
are regularly inoculated against brucellosis, parasites, Clostridium
infection, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, and bovine vibriosis.
The major concerns for illness in
European bison are foot-and-mouth
disease and balanoposthitis, which affects the male sex organs; a
number of parasitic diseases have also been cited as threats. The
inbreeding of the species caused by the small population plays a role
in a number of genetic defects and immunity to diseases, which in turn
poses greater risks to the population.
The term "buffalo" is sometimes considered to be a misnomer for this
animal, as it is only distantly related to either of the two "true
buffalo", the Asian water buffalo and the
African buffalo . Samuel de
Champlain applied the term buffalo (buffles in French) to the bison in
1616 (published 1619), after seeing skins and a drawing shown to him
by members of the
Nipissing First Nation , who said they travelled
forty days (from east of Lake Huron) to trade with another nation who
hunted the animals. Though "bison" might be considered more
scientifically correct, as a result of standard usage, "buffalo" is
also considered correct and is listed in many dictionaries as an
acceptable name for American buffalo or bison. Buffalo has a much
longer history than bison, which was first recorded in 1774.
Bison hunting Photo from the 1870s of a pile of
American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer .
Humans were almost exclusively accountable for the near-extinction of
American bison in the 1800s. At the beginning of the century, tens
of millions of bison roamed North America. Humans slaughtered an
estimated 50 million bison, not for sustenance but for sport, in a
bid by the U.S. government to strip the
Plains Indians of a vital
component of their way of life. Railroads were advertising "hunting
by rail", where trains encountered large herds alongside or crossing
the tracks. Men aboard fired from the trains roof or windows, leaving
countless animals to rot where they died. The overhunting of the
bison reduced their population to hundreds. Attempts to revive the
American bison have been highly successful. Farming of bison has
increased their population to nearly 150,000. The
American bison is,
therefore, no longer considered an endangered species . The
extinction of four species of bison (B. antiquus, B. latifrons, B.
occidentalis, and B. priscus) was due to natural selection (see
section Evolution and genetic history).
As of July 2015, an estimated 4,900 bison lived in Yellowstone
National Park , the largest U.S. bison population on public land.
During 1983–1985 visitors experienced 33 bison-related injuries
(range = 10–13/year), so the park implemented education campaigns.
After years of success, five injuries associated with bison encounters
occurred in 2015, because visitors did not maintain the required
distance of 75 ft (23 m) from bison while hiking or taking pictures.
Bison, ground, grass-fed, cooked
NUTRITIONAL VALUE PER 100 G (3.5 OZ)
179 kcal (750 kJ)
(12%) 0.139 mg
(22%) 0.264 mg
(40%) 5.966 mg
(31%) 0.401 mg
(4%) 16 μg
(102%) 2.44 μg
(0%) 0 IU
(1%) 0.20 mg
(1%) 1.3 μg
(1%) 14 mg
(25%) 3.19 mg
(6%) 23 mg
(30%) 213 mg
(8%) 353 mg
(5%) 76 mg
(56%) 5.34 mg
link to USDA Database entry
* μg = micrograms • mg = milligrams
* IU = International units
Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
Bison is an excellent source of complete protein and a rich source
(20% or more of the Daily Value, DV) of multiple vitamins including
Vitamin B6, and
Vitamin B12 and is also a rich
source of minerals including iron, phosphorus, and zinc. Additionally,
bison is a good source (10% or more of the Daily Value) of thiamine.
In America, the commercial industry for bison has been slow to
develop despite individuals, such as
Ted Turner , who have long
marketed bison meat. In the 1990s, Turner found limited success with
restaurants for high-quality cuts of meat, which include bison steaks
and tenderloin. Lower-quality cuts suitable for hamburger and hot
dogs have been described as "almost nonexistent". This created a
marketing problem for commercial farming because the majority of
usable meat, about 400 pounds for each bison, is suitable for these
products. In 2003, the United States Department of Agriculture
purchased $10 million worth of frozen overstock to save the industry,
which would later recover through better use of consumer marketing.
Restaurants have played a role in popularizing bison meat, like Ted\'s
Montana Grill , which added bison to their menus. Ruby Tuesday first
offered bison on their menus in 2005.
In Canada, commercial bison farming began in the mid 1980s,
concerning an unknown number of animals then. The first census of the
bison occurred in 1996, which recorded 45,235 bison on 745 farms, and
grew to 195,728 bison on 1,898 farms for the 2006 census.
Several pet food companies use bison as a red meat alternative in dog
foods. The companies producing these formulas include Natural Balance
Pet Foods ,
Freshpet , The Blue Buffalo Company, Solid Gold , Canidae,
and Taste of the Wild.
National Bison Day (November 1 in the United States)
Yellowstone Park bison herd
* Pile of Bones was the original name for
Regina, Saskatchewan and
referred to buffalo bones found nearby.
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