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North America's largest land mammal

With their massive heads, huge horns and shaggy fur, bison are the largest mammals in North America and have long captivated indigenous peoples and American settlers alike.


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In the early 1800s, some 60 million bison roamed the forests, plains and river valleys from Alaska to Mexico. By 1889, only about 635 remained in the wild, and President Roosevelt's administration added them to the list of protected species. Today, thanks to education and repopulation efforts, the number of wild bison has increased to approximately 20,500. They are considered "one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time".

Four Interesting Facts About Bison

  • Big and responsible: Technically a type of cattle, the bison is the largest land mammal in North America. But don't let their bulky size fool you. Bison can run up to 40 miles per hour!
  • Official Status: The bison is the official national mammal of the United States, and November 1st is National Bison Day.
  • Crossbreeding with cows: Ranchers crossbreed bison with cows, and the resulting animals are called "bison" and "zubron."
  • Singular and plural: Bison is one of the few words in English that has the same singular and plural forms.

scientific and cultural names

American bison
Tatanka means bison in Sioux, meaning "big beast".

©Tim Malek/Shutterstock.com

The word "bison" means "wild bull" and has linguistic roots in Latin, Proto-Germanic, and Middle English.

You may hear bison referred to as "buffalo" or "American buffalo." While common, it's a bit of a misnomer, as the bison is a far cry from the actual water buffalo and water buffalo that live in Africa and Asia. French explorer Samuel de Champlain is credited with mistakenly labeling bison as buffaloes during an 18th-century expedition to North America.

In Europe, bison are also known as wisent. Although linguists are not 100% sure about the root of the word, most agree that it is of Slavic or Baltic origin and means "stinky animal".

In the Sioux language used by the Lakota and Sioux, the word for bison is "tatanka," which means "he who owns us" or "big beast."


American bison (Bison bison bison)

There are two types of bison. The scientific name for the first species is Bison bison , and they live mainly in North America – in scrub and river valleys. They are covered in hair except for their hairless tails, and have large horns pointing upwards and sideways. They weigh between 800 and 2,800 pounds and can reach a height of 6 feet 7 inches at the shoulder. American bison are easier to tame than European bison and can be kept with cattle. The American bison can be divided into two subspecies – the plains bison (B. bison bison) and the wood bison (B. athabascae) .

European bison (Bison bison bonasus)

The second species is scientifically known as Bison bison bonasus, and they live mainly in Europe. These bison are less hairy than American bison, although they have hairier tails. European bison weigh between 935 and 2,030 pounds and reach a height of 6 feet 11 inches at the shoulder, slightly smaller than the American bison. The horns of the bison are forward, hot-tempered and harder to tame.


Bison latifrons lived in North America during the Pleistocene Epoch and were the largest bovids that ever lived in North America.

© iStock.com/barbaraaaa

The bison belong to the Bovini group, which includes cattle, yaks, zebu, wiset (European bison) and bison. Although the relationships between the species are complex and unresolved, there is consensus that the bison's most recent ancient ancestor was the ancient bison .

The bison genus first appeared in South Asia about 2 million years ago. Bison lived in northern Eurasia and Alaska and were probably the dominant hoofed mammals at the time. These animals migrated to North America via the Bering land bridge during low sea levels during the Pleistocene Epoch (240,000 – 220,000 years ago).

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Bison latifrons evolved from B. priscus , the former leading to bison antiquus. The last time bison appeared was about 10,000 years ago. These animals gave rise to the modern American plains bison.

bison appearance

adult bison pictures

Bison are huge animals with two large horns.

The average height of an adult in North America is two meters (or 6 feet 2 inches). That's taller than basketball legend Michal Jordan! Longitudinal, they can reach 3 meters, or 11 feet. The European bison is slightly taller but stocky, measuring 2.1 meters (or 6 feet 11 inches) tall and 2.9 meters (or 9 feet 6 inches) long.

Speaking of weight, American bison can weigh between 400 and 1,270 kilograms, which equates to about 880 to 2,800 pounds. European bison typically weigh between 800 and 1,000 kilograms, or 1,800 and 2,200 pounds. In other words, the bison weighs about as much as a car.

Cold-weather bison have long, shaggy hair. Animals that live in warmer climates have shorter hair. At birth, bison are orange-red. At about two months of age, the reds begin to turn dark brown. Bison grow thicker fur during the colder months, which they shed during the summer.

Bison are artiodactyls, which means they have divided hooves. Despite their size, they are also fast, reaching speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. For comparison, the average person runs 8 to 10 miles per hour. Elite athletes like marathon superstar Eliud Kipchoge run at about 13 miles per hour.

American Bison v. European Bison

european bison
The European bison does not have the shaggy fur around the head and neck like the American bison.

©Szczepan Klejbuk/Shutterstock.com

American bison and European bison are very similar animals, but there are some slight differences.

First, the American bison and the European bison are animals that live in slightly different habitats. The former tend to roam open plains and mountains, while the latter congregate in dense forests. Behaviorally, the American plains bison were easier to domesticate than the European forest bison.

Also, American bison fur is usually longer than European bison fur. However, the tail of the European bison is hairier than that of the American bison. Additionally, American bison tend to graze and eat low-lying vegetation and grasses. European ones, on the other hand, are browsers, which means they feed primarily on leaves, twigs, and hanging fruit.

There are also subtle anatomical differences between European and American bison. The American buffalo has 15 ribs, while the European buffalo has only 14. The American buffalo has four lower vertebral discs, while the European buffalo has five. Finally, European bison have slightly longer legs and necks than their American cousins.

largest bison ever

In 2007, a hunter in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest killed a bison dubbed "Old Lonely," believed to have the largest horns ever recorded for the species. The horns of the Old Lonesome measure 32 inches from tip to tip. Individually, each horn is approximately 19 inches.

Today, cattle farmers raise bison for food. The largest one on record weighed 3,801 pounds or 1,724 kilograms. The heaviest bison ever recorded weighed 2,800 pounds or 1,270 kilograms.


American bison in the middle of the road
American bison are easier to tame than European bison.


Sometimes bison are peaceful and lazy. Other times, they can be bold and dangerous without warning. If mothers feel threatened near their calves, they will be extra protective. Humans should be kept at least 25 feet away from bison.

Bison typically live in sex-specific herds for part of the year. When male bison — or bulls — reach two years of age, they leave their mothers and join a group of males known as a "single herd." Female herds are usually larger than male herds, and there is a matriarch who makes big decisions like where to graze and when to sleep. Each year, female and male herds join for mating season.

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Bison love to roll. No, that doesn't mean they sit there feeling sorry for themselves. To wallow is when an animal rolls in mud, water, or dust. They engage in this behavior for several reasons. Sometimes they use rolling as an astringent to soothe the skin or as a temperature control tool. Other times, they do it for fun and to attract mates during mating season. However, bison can be fatal if they wallow in areas infected with anthrax spores.


Today, bison live in North America and Europe, and a small herd roams Russia. In North America, cattle herds are mostly concentrated in the Great Plains and tallgrass plains west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains.

Yellowstone's bison herds are the ancestors of the original native animals.

©Michael Hinkle/Shutterstock.com

Purebred American buffalo herds live in the following areas:

  1. Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and small parts of Utah and Idaho
  2. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
  3. Blue Hills State Park in Minnesota
  4. Elk Island National Park in Alberta
  5. Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan
  6. Henry Mountains in Utah

European bison live primarily in wooded areas.

Diet: What do bison eat?

bison roaming the wild
A bison's diet is 93 percent grass.

©iStock.com/Karel Stipek

American bison are nomadic vegetarians. Their diet consists of 93% grasses, 5% flowering shrubs, and 2% hanging vegetation. To stay healthy, bison must eat 1.6 percent of their body weight each day, which is an average of about 24 pounds of vegetation per day—or the equivalent of two bowling balls of grass and vegetation!

Bison migrate with the vegetation and, depending on the time of year, head to where the most nutritious selections grow. Like other livestock, they need to avoid poisonous plants such as hemlock, arrowweed, dead walnut and vetch.

Bison have a ruminant digestive system, which means they can ferment and separate nutrients in a special compartment in their stomach.

Predators and Threats

pack of wolves
Wolves prey on bison.

©David Dirga/Shutterstock.com

Wolves, cougars, bears, and humans prey on bison.

In North America, prior to the 1800s, indigenous tribes hunted bison responsibly for their livelihoods. They use nearly every part of the animal to support the entire community. When settlers began to move west, several factors contributed to the dramatic decline in bison numbers. Technological advances, such as railroads, mines, and factories, encroached on the bison's habitat and introduced diseases that were fatal to the species. Collectively, these events have come to be known as the "Bison Massacre of the 19th Century."

This raises the question: Are bison endangered? The answer depends on the region.

While bison used to be a protected species in the United States, they are no longer classified as such. However, groups like the Buffalo Field Campaign have been lobbying hard to add them to the list. Additionally, the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature list bison as "near threatened."

Unlike the United States, Canada includes the American bison on its endangered list.

Reproduction, Babies and Longevity

calf and bison mother
Bison calves are born with red coats.

©Marcia Straub/Shutterstock.com


The bison mating season is known as the "rut" or "rut." It starts in June and ends in September. As mammals, female bison – known as "cows" – have a live birth and gestation period of about 285 days, about the same as humans. They're much easier than elephants, though, because elephants tend to conceive for nearly two years. Also, like humans, bison typically give birth to one child at a time, but twinning can occasionally occur. Unlike humans, bison babies can weigh as much as 30 to 70 pounds or 14 to 32 kilograms.

To attract a mate, bulls roar and roll, which means they make loud calls and roll around. They also head butt each other and punch each other in a show of strength to protect the lady. Note that we didn't say "Ms." That's because bison are polygamous, meaning that one male mates with several females, but the female only mates with one male.

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Bison can be bred between 3 and 19 years old. Cows that conceive after the age of 8 are considered geriatric.

bison facts

Bison with calf
Bison calves will live with their mother for two to three years.

© iStock.com/Bill_Vorasate

Technically, bison calves are calves, but they are often referred to as "red dogs" because of their orange-red coat at birth. During the first few months, the cow produces milk for the babies and teaches them how to graze. Cubs typically spend two to three years in their mother's herd before joining the single herd.


The lifespan of bison is about 15 years; captive bison can live to be around 25 years old.


kansas bison
Thanks to conservation efforts, bison have gone from endangered to numbers in excess of 500,000.

© Ricardo Reitmeyer/Shutterstock.com

In the 1800s, westward expansion and overzealous hunting reduced the number of bison in North America to near extinction. For entertainment, some train companies offer rail safaris, where people stand on the roof of the train and shoot bison. Today, some 20,500 wild purebred bison and 500,000 bison-cattle hybrids call the United States and Canada home as a result of education and conservation efforts. About 600 bison live in Europe and a small part of Russia.

Interestingly, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 has played a role in the recent intellectual renaissance in Europe. After the nuclear disaster in the region, officials created the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which has been turned into a makeshift wildlife sanctuary. The vegetation that now grows in the area proved beneficial to large mammals and supported the regeneration of bison and brown bears.

In the United States, the New York Zoo (now known as the Bronx Zoo) assisted in the repopulation of bison in 1913. As a gift to the federal government, the zoo put 14 bison on a train heading west to South Dakota's Black Hills. From there, they were loaded onto another train and scattered across the plain. Those 14 American buffalo were the ancestors of the bison that now roam Yellowstone National Park.

See all 280 animals that start with B

No, the main difference between bison and cattle is that bison are two distinct species that live in North America and Europe, whereas "cow" is a term commonly used to refer to castrated bulls.

The main difference between bison and moose is their physical appearance. While both are large land mammals that live in North America and Eurasia, the buffalo is much more stocky, while the moose is a member of the deer family and has much longer legs.

Bison are herbivores, eating only plants and vegetation.

The American bison is similar to the European bison, but there are some minor differences. The former live in open plains and mountains; the latter wander in dense forests. The two subspecies also have slight anatomical differences. For example, the American bison generally has longer hair than the European bison, and the former has one more rib than the latter.

Although bison and buffalo are different species, many people refer to the American bison as the buffalo. It was such a common term that the United States issued the "Buffalo Nickel" in 1913.

Bison belong to the animal kingdom.

Bison belong to the phylum Chordate.

Bison belong to the class Mammalia.

Bison belong to the family Bovidae.

Bison belong to the order Artiodactyla.

Bison belong to the genus Bison.

Bison are covered with hair.

Bison live in grasslands and forests.

Bison eat grass, acorns and berries.

Predators of bison include humans, bears and wolves.

Bison have huge heads and humped shoulders.

The average number of babies a bison has is 1.

The scientific name of bison is Bison Bison.

Bison can live 15 to 20 years.

Bison can travel as fast as 22 miles per hour.

The key differences between musk ox and bison are their body size, preferred habitat, and evolutionary history.