This article aims to provide an objective account of the unique characteristics of various types of bison, whose name comes from the Latin term for “wild ox.” Before, Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus once named them Bos bison for their similar appearance to cattle.
We will explore their behavioral patterns and dietary habits, presenting a comprehensive picture of their existence in their natural habitats. So, join us on this journey through the lives of different extant and extinct bison species.
Bison General Information
The Bison belongs to the genus Bison of the Bovidae family in the Artiodactyla order. It can weigh between 900 and 2,200 pounds, stand between 6 and 6.5 feet tall at the shoulder, and be up to 10 feet long.
Likewise, bison inhabit grasslands, feeding on grasses and sedges across North American prairies and European steppes.
They also cover a large geographic triangle stretching from Canada's far northwest to the Mexican states of Durango and Nuevo León and extending east along the western boundary of the Appalachian Mountains. Moreover, bison can cross rivers more than half a mile wide with surprising grace.
The American Bison is also the United States national mammal and part of the country's heritage. However, the species faces significant threats from infectious diseases like brucellosis, tuberculosis, and anthrax.
Read more: Bison Facts.
7 Types of Bison Species
1. American Bison (Bison bison)
The American Bison, the heaviest land animal in North America's Great Plains, can run up to 35 miles per hour. They graze on grasses and sedges, moving from one spot to another to allow for vegetation recovery.
Existing bison herds separate into male and female groups, and they only come together during breeding season, when males compete for mates.
Once on the brink of extinction, conservation efforts have restored the American Bison's numbers. For example, several Native American tribes have restored the bison populations to their lands.
However, the IUCN still classifies them as near threatened, indicating that more work must be done to ensure survival.
Plains Bison (Bison bison bison)
The Plains Bison is a massive creature that once roamed the Great Plains in herds that numbered millions. They live primarily in protected areas like Yellowstone National Park, Wood Buffalo National Park, and Elk Island National Park.
During the 20th century, they established conservation herds of plains bison to restore their populations.
This North American Bison has a functional hump on its back and a thick, dark brown coat. Their diet mainly consists of grasses and sedges, and they must watch for wolves and grizzly bears, their primary predators.
Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae)
The Wood Bison lives in North America's northern grasslands and boreal forests. They can survive harsh environments, feeding on grasses and sedges during summer and switch to willow, aspen leaves, and even lichens when winter sets in.
The Wood Bison's coat is dense, dark brown, with a beard and a mane around its neck, serving as natural armor and helping it cope with the cold winters.
They can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. These creatures can become aggressive during the rut season or when they feel threatened.
2. European Bison (Bison bonasus)
The European Bison, also known as the Wisent, is the heaviest land animal in Europe. Their body features a high, rounded hump and sturdy forequarters that drop down to more slender hindquarters.
The bison's coat is a thick layer of dark brown fur, often highlighted by a lighter patch on its rump and underparts.
Moreover, the Wisent inhabits mixed forests, grasslands, and marshes of Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, Belarus, and Russia. They spend most of their day feeding leisurely on various grasses, herbs, twigs, bark, and leaves.
Despite their size, they are generally peaceful animals and more likely to retreat than retaliate when threatened. The lifespan of the European Bison is between 15 and 20 years in the wild and longer in captivity.
Lowland Bison (Bison bonasus bonasus)
Lowland Bison live in mixed woodland and grassland landscapes. Likewise, these animals live in herds, usually under the watchful eye of a dominant female bison. Males, however, prefer to be alone or form smaller bands.
They eat grasses, herbs, and shoots. Unfortunately, Lowland Bison face shrinking habitats due to expanding agriculture and logging and susceptibility to diseases transmitted by domestic cattle. Conservation efforts have helped maintain their population size but require ongoing protection.
Carpathian Bison (Bison bonasus hungarorum)
The Carpathian Bison used to live in the Carpathian Mountains. They had a robust body, large head, short but thick neck, and a prominent hump, and their shaggy coat helped them survive in the cold weather.
Sadly, the Carpathian Bison became extinct due to unchecked hunting and shrinking habitats around 18502.
They had complex social structures and lived in herds, and their migratory patterns showed their adaptability.
Caucasian Bison (Bison bonasus caucasicus)
The Caucasian Bison once inhabited the Caucasus Mountains. It was a big animal with a hump on its back, and it had an herbivorous diet.
They maintained the region's ecosystem by constantly grazing and keeping open spaces intact. Unfortunately, they went extinct in 1927, significantly impacting the region's biodiversity and ecological harmony.
However, today's European Bison population carries the genetic material of the Caucasian Bison due to crossbreeding efforts.
3. Steppe Bison (Bison priscus)
The Steppe Bison was a species of bison that existed during the Pleistocene epoch in North America and Europe. This extinct species was larger than modern bison and stood at a height of 2 meters at the shoulder.
The species also had long, curved horns that spanned up to a meter, indicating possible battles fought during mating season.
However, the species became extinct due to climate change and overhunting by early humans. As the Ice Age ended, the Steppe Bison disappeared from the fossil record.
The timing of its extinction suggests that the species struggled to survive in the face of a rapidly changing environment and the growth of human populations. Today, remarkably preserved remains of the species in the permafrost provide us with valuable insights into the life of this extraordinary creature.
4. Ancient Bison (Bison antiquus)
During the Pleistocene epoch, the Ancient Bison were the dominant species of the grasslands of North America1. These bison were much larger than their modern counterparts, with the average male bison weighing around 3,500 pounds and standing 7.5 feet tall at the shoulder.
They could thrive in various environments, from Alaska to Mexico, but preferred grasslands and prairies where grasses and sedges were abundant. Their grazing habits influenced the distribution of plants, which in turn affected the abundance of other animal species.
Moreover, the Ancient Bison’s grazing habits influenced the distribution of plants, which affected the abundance of other animal species.
5. Long-horned Bison (Bison latifrons)
The Long-horned Bison were among the largest ruminants ever, towering up to 8.2 feet at the shoulder and weighing up to 4,400 pounds. Their most striking feature was their horns, spanning an astonishing 9.8 feet from tip to tip.
Long-horned bison used their horns to deter predators in the open environments stretching from Alaska to Mexico. Despite their enormous size, they primarily grazed on grasses and sedges.
The grazing was pivotal in shaping their ecosystem; scientists believe they lived in herds. Unfortunately, the arrival of humans and changing climates proved too much for them. Around 20,000 years ago, they disappeared.
6. Holocene Bison (Bison occidentalis)
The Holocene Bison was a larger species than the modern American Bison. Males could reach up to 8.2 feet in height and weigh an impressive 3,300 pounds. They had broad and robust skulls useful for foraging and symbolized power during male dominance bouts.
They were also adaptable eaters, consuming various grass, forbs, and woody plant materials. Male and female bison separate into gender-based herds during non-mating seasons.
Holocene Bison roamed Central and Western North America in large herds, ranging from Alaska to Mexico. Today, the American Bison is the modern descendant of the Holocene Bison, exhibiting similar behavioral patterns and traits.
7. European Water Buffalo (Bison murrensis)
Scientists discovered the European Water Buffalo in Murren, Switzerland. This extinct bison species lived during the Pleistocene epoch, when ice was the dominant force shaping the earth's landscape.
This massive animal was well-suited for surviving the ice age due to its size and long, curved horns that provided a defensive edge and higher status among bison. Despite its formidable appearance, it consumed grasses and herbs to sustain its massive body.
Even though it is now extinct, scientists remain fascinated as a testament to nature's ability to adapt and survive in harsh conditions.
Wilson, M. C., Hills, L. V., & Shapiro, B. (2008). Late Pleistocene northward-dispersing Bison antiquus from the Bighill Creek Formation, Gallelli Gravel Pit, Alberta, Canada, and the fate of Bison occidentalis. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 45(7), 827-859.