bison facts

12 Bison Facts about North America's Largest Land Animal

The bison are an integral part of our ecosystem and provide valuable insights into the concepts of adaptation and resilience. Moreover, these bison facts give us a comprehensive perspective of these majestic animals.

Notably, bison are a testament to animal resilience. After their population plummeted to fewer than a thousand in the 19th century, the bison recovered to over half a million individuals. Furthermore, their significance to the Native Americans is crucial to their history. The natives used every part of the animal, from hides to bones.

Related read: Here are some more animals whose names start with B!

12 Bison Facts

bison on wilderness
Photo by WikiImages on Pixabay

1. Bison are the largest land animals in North America.

The majestic bison is an indigenous species of North America and is the largest land animal on the continent. Moreover, they surpass other giant animals, like the moose and grizzly bear. For example, an adult male bison, or 'bull,' can weigh an astonishing 2,000 pounds. Besides their weight, bison are also tall; they can reach up to six feet at the shoulder, meaning they are taller than most humans.

Throughout centuries, bison have flourished in North America. Their size and strength allow them to travel through deep snow and seek food during the winter. Moreover, its size influences a bison's social standing and chances of reproduction. In a free-ranging bison herd, the larger males often secure the best grazing spots, giving them an edge during the mating season.

2. Bison and buffalo are different animals.

bison near trees
Photo by Michael Gäbler on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original)

People in North America may consider "buffalo" and "bison" as the same animal. However, it is only partially accurate. While the American Bison, African Buffalo, and Asian Buffalo belong to the same family, each animal has distinct traits. So, they are more like distant relatives than identical triplets.

For example, the American Bison belongs to the Bison genus, while African and Asian buffaloes belong to the Syncerus and Bubalus genera. Moreover, besides American Bison or wood bison, European Bison also exist. On the other hand, buffalo prefer the warm climates of Africa and Asia. 

Additionally, their physical characteristics differ considerably. The bison has a long, thick, dark brown winter coat that lightens in the summer. Moreover, it carries a majestic hump on solid shoulders. They also have short, sharp horns on their heads for charging. 

In contrast, a buffalo's coat doesn't change color throughout the year, and they don't have a hump. Moreover, its horns are more prolonged and curved.

Related read: Buffalo Facts & Types of Bison.

3. Male and female bison have horns.

Unlike popular belief, both male and female bison have horns. They develop early, typically when the animal is around two years old. During this stage, known as the 'spike-horn' phase, the horns grow at a 45-degree angle.

Then, once the bison reaches around four years old, its horns begin to transform. The once spike-like horns assume a graceful arc, and its black horns gradually lighten to gray, much like human hair. When the buffalo turns eight, its sharp horns begin to blunt and shorten. This change signifies the battles the bison fought and the harsh seasons it endured. 

Notably, one cannot determine a bison's sex based on its horns. Instead, their horns record their age. 

4. Bison express their mood with their tails.

bison's close up view
Photo by Ralphs_Fotos on Pixabay

Did you know that bison use their tails to express emotions? Like our domesticated dogs, bison also have a tail language, reflecting swift mood changes from peaceful to agitated.

When a bison's tail hangs loosely and sways to its movements, it is comfortable with its surroundings. However, things can change in an instant.

When a bison's tail stands erect, a threat has scared the bison. Next, when it holds its tail high, the bison is about to charge. Any change in a bison's tail position indicates that one must keep a safe distance. 

5. Bison have incredibly thick coats.

Another bison fact is that bison can survive harsh winters on the prairie because of their remarkably thick coats. These tightly woven and well-insulated coats keep the snow falling on the bison from melting, turning these animals into white outlines against the winter landscape. Additionally, the bison has ten times more hair strands than cattle per square inch. 

Moreover, the bison's coat is two-layered; the top layer is rough and tough, designed to withstand strong winds, freezing rain, or a relentless snowstorm. Besides, it also keeps moisture away, ensuring the bison's skin remains dry during snowfall.

Under the first layer, the bison coat has fine, dense hair that works like a thermal blanket, with insulation that traps air and warmth. Thanks to this layer, the bison can shrug off any temperature drop while maintaining a cozy body temperature. 

6. Bison are big, but they are also fast.

bison on snow
Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

Next on our bison facts list: Despite their massive size, the bison can sprint faster than a seasoned racehorse. Thanks to their muscular legs, they can reach up to 35 miles per hour. 

This surprising speed is a crucial survival tool in the wild. When facing predators, a speedy escape can mean the difference between life and death.

Moreover, male bison show off their speed during the mating season, hoping to attract mates and establish dominance in the herd. Even bison calves can keep with the herd mere hours after entering the world. While bison calves weigh up to 70 pounds at birth, they can keep up with adults at full speed. 

7. Bison calves change color as they grow.

Baby bison, or calves, have reddish-brown fur that sets them apart from their parents' darker coats. This difference in color serves a vital purpose in their survival. Concealing themselves among the prairie grasses, these calves blend seamlessly into their surroundings, shielding them from potential predators.

As the calves mature, their coats darken from reddish-brown to darker, earthy shades. This color change indicates their growth from baby bison to full-grown adults. After two years, for example, female calves, or cows, begin breeding. 

8. Bison roll around in the dirt.

Often, a bison gradually lowers itself to the ground and moves around, kicking up dirt and dust. This activity is a crucial survival tactic since it wards off biting insects like the black fly1. As bison wallow, their thick fur gets caked with dust, discouraging these notorious pests from alighting and biting. 

The bison's thick winter coat becomes a burden. So, once again, the bison begin to wallow, which helps them shed their heavy fur and make way for a lighter coat. 

9. Bison are keystone species.

bison laying on grass
Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

Bison are ecological engineers that help maintain the dynamism and diversity of grassland ecosystems3. For example, bison primarily eat grasses, which contributes to their ecosystem by preventing a single plant species from dominating the area. The bison promotes the survival and growth of less common species and adds to the landscape's biodiversity.

Moreover, wallowing is more than just a pest-control mechanism; it also affects the surrounding ecosystem. When bison wallow, they depress the earth, which becomes catchment areas for rainwater.

Gradually, these depressions form small wetlands that provide water for other wildlife and vegetation. Moreover, wallowing bison aerate the soil and disperse seeds, thereby boosting the growth of native grasses.

The bison's hooves also break up the soil crust as they roam the plains. Their journey enables the germination of seeds and promotes the growth of plant life. 

10. The bison is the United States National Mammal.

In 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, which named the bison the National Mammal of the United States. This decision represented a deep recognition of how the American bison has shaped the history of the nation2.

Besides, the National Bison Legacy Act pays tribute to the incredible comeback of a nearly extinct species. 

11. Bison have recovered from extinction.

bison's side view
Photo by Ralphs_Fotos on Pixabay

Wild bison were once proud symbols of untamed North America. However, their fate took a dire turn in the 19th century as European settlers surged into their lands, railroads sliced through their habitats, and relentless hunters nearly wiped them out. By the end of the 1800s, the mass of 30 million bison had shrunk to a mere 325.

In 1905, the American Bison Society led conservation initiatives to revitalize the bison population and is now considered the primary national conservation steward of these animals. Two years after its founding, the American Bison Society also released 15 bison into the untamed terrains of Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, an essential milestone in recovery.

Then, in the 1920s, the US government and Native American tribes worked together to establish the National Bison Range in Montana and several breeding programs.

12. Bison are ecologically extinct.

The National Park Service oversees approximately 11,248 to 13,123 adult American bison in free-ranging and conservation herds within national park lands such as Yellowstone National Park and Wind Cave National Park. Despite this effort, for the long-term survival of these creatures, it's imperative that the herds maintain a sufficiently large size.

The term "ecological extinction" refers to a scenario where a species' numbers have dwindled to the point where they can no longer perform a critical role in their ecosystem. Unfortunately, this term now applies to the American bison.

Although this species is not extinct in the traditional sense, its existence is limited to small and fragmented herds that lack the essential genetic diversity required for long-term survival. Genetic diversity allows organisms to adapt to changing environments and resist diseases.

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1

McMillan, B. R., Cottam, M. R., & Kaufman, D. W. (2000). Wallowing behavior of American bison (Bos bison) in tallgrass prairie: an examination of alternate explanations. American Midland Naturalist, 144(1), 159-167.

2

Sanderson, E. W., Redford, K. H., Weber, B., Aune, K., Baldes, D., Berger, J., ... & Parisien, M. A. (2008). The ecological future of the North American bison: conceiving long-term, large-scale conservation of wildlife. Conservation Biology, 22(2), 252-266.

3

Knapp, A. K., Blair, J. M., Briggs, J. M., Collins, S. L., Hartnett, D. C., Johnson, L. C., & Towne, E. G. (1999). The keystone role of bison in North American tallgrass prairie. BioScience, 49(1), 39-50.

Mike is a degree-qualified researcher and writer passionate about increasing global awareness about climate change and encouraging people to act collectively in resolving these issues.

Fact Checked By:
Chinny Verana, BSc.

Photo by Jonathan Mast on Unsplash
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