The American Bison: 12 Remarkable Facts and Their Conservation Journey

| |

The American bison, commonly known as the buffalo, is an icon of the American West. These majestic mammals once roamed the plains in massive herds but were nearly driven to extinction in the late 1800s. Thanks to conservation efforts, bison have made a comeback and can once again be seen grazing on grasslands across North America.

Bison are not only integral to the prairie ecosystem but also have great cultural significance for Native American tribes. From their unique physical features to their role in history, bison are truly remarkable animals. Read on to learn 12 fascinating facts about these gentle giants.

1. Bison Are the Largest Land Mammal in North America

American bisons (Bison bison) in a green field
American bisons (Bison bison) in a green field

The American bison is the largest mammal found in North America today and one of the largest remaining mammals in the world.

  • Adult male bison, known as bulls, can reach over 2,000 pounds and stand 6 feet tall at the shoulder.
  • Females, called cows, are smaller at around 1,000 pounds and 4-5 feet tall.
  • Even newborn calves are hefty, weighing 30-70 pounds at birth.

Due to their massive size and imposing horns, bison have few natural predators aside from wolves and bears. Their size enabled them to survive the harsh winters and storms of the Great Plains.

2. Bison Can Reach Speeds Up to 40 mph

Despite their bulk, bison are surprisingly quick on their feet. When needed, they can run at speeds up to 40 miles per hour.

This burst of speed allows them to escape predators or aggressively charge when threatened. Their agility is also shown by their ability to jump over obstacles up to 6 feet high.

So don’t let their lumbering appearance fool you – bison can turn on the speed when they want to. It’s no wonder bison are nicknamed “thundering giants of the prairie.”

3. They Have a Distinctive Hump on Their Shoulders

The large hump located above a bison’s shoulders is one of its most characteristic features. This hump is formed by the animal’s massive shoulder muscles.

Having this hump gives bison several advantages:

  • It allows them to use their big heads and horns to plow through snow in winter to get to vegetation below.
  • The hump provides extra support for the neck muscles when grazing for long periods.
  • It stores fat and protein reserves that can be used in winter when food is scarce.

So this unique shoulder hump serves important functions for bison survival on the plains.

4. Both Males and Females Have Horns

selective focus of furry bison with horns standing in zoo

Many people are surprised to learn that both male and female bison grow horns. The horns begin to grow when bison reach 2 years old.

Since the horns look quite similar, it can be tricky figuring out a bison’s gender without a close inspection. Just remember – the ladies have horns too!

5. Their Coat Provides Insulation Against Cold

Bison have a thick, shaggy winter coat that enables them to survive frigid temperatures down to -40° F. This coat is made up of two layers:

  • A coarse outer guard layer of hair up to 8 inches long. This protects against wind, rain, and snow.
  • A soft, fine inner layer that provides insulation. This traps air close to the skin to retain body heat.

Bison shed this heavy coat each spring. Without it, they would overheat in the summer months. Their amazing adaptability allows them to thrive year-round in harsh plains environments.

6. Calves Are Born Reddish-Orange

Bison mate from late July through September. After a 9-month gestation, new calves are born from April to June.

When bison calves are born, their hair has a distinctive reddish-orange hue. This coloration led to their endearing nickname of “red dogs.”

Over the first 4 months of life, the calf’s hair gradually darkens to the brown of mature bison. By their first winter, calves have grown the shaggy coat to match the adults.

7. Bison Wallow in Dust for Grooming

Bison eating grass in American Landscape. Yellowstone National Park.
Bison eating grass in American Landscape. Yellowstone National Park.

Bison have a fun habit of rolling in dust, dirt, and mud – known as wallowing. They do this for a couple of reasons:

  • It helps groom their coat by removing old hair and skin. The dust acts as an exfoliant.
  • Wallowing applies a natural insect repellent by covering their skin with crusty mud. This deters biting flies and parasites.
  • During mating season, males wallow in urine-soaked soil and then roll on vegetation. This displays their presence to other bison.

So don’t be surprised to see bison looking a muddy mess – they’re just taking a dust bath!

8. They Were Nearly Hunted to Extinction

Bison once numbered in the tens of millions, perhaps up to 60 million, in North America. But excessive hunting in the 1800s nearly wiped them out completely.

  • Bison were slaughtered by settlers and ranchers for their meat, hides, and to prevent them from competing with livestock for grasslands.
  • Native Americans who depended on bison for survival were deliberately deprived of their main food and material source.
  • Habitat loss and disease took further tolls on the remaining bison population.

By the 1880s, there were fewer than 1,000 bison left. But conservation efforts allowed the species to gradually recover. There are now 500,000 bison in North America.

9. Yellowstone Has the Only Continuous Bison Herd

Bison eating grass in American Landscape. Yellowstone National Park.
Bison eating grass in American Landscape. Yellowstone National Park.

Most bison today are raised as livestock, but Yellowstone National Park has the distinction of being the only place where bison have lived continuously since ancient times.

Some key facts about Yellowstone’s bison herd:

  • It is one of the few genetically pure herds, meaning they have no cattle DNA from crossbreeding.
  • The herd size today is around 5,000 animals.
  • Park service manages the herd by culling, hunting, and contraception. This prevents overgrazing and migration into nearby ranches.
  • Yellowstone provides critical habitat for maintaining sustainable wild bison populations.

10. Bison Helped Shape the Prairie Ecosystem

As a keystone species, bison were, and still are, essential to the overall health of the Great Plains grasslands. Their grazing and movement habits provided several ecological benefits:

  • Their sharp hooves naturally till soil and plant new seeds.
  • Uprooting grass provides food for rodents and birds.
  • Wallowing creates wetland habitats for insects and amphibians.
  • Their dung acts as fertilizer that improves soil quality.
  • Grazing prevents any one plant from dominating, maintaining biodiversity.

So although their numbers are reduced, bison continue to positively shape prairie landscapes.

11. Native Americans Revere Bison Spiritually

For thousands of years, Native American tribes of the Great Plains relied on every part of the bison for food, clothing, tools, shelter, and weapons. Bison were at the center of daily life and tribal culture.

Beyond physical survival, bison hold symbolic and spiritual meaning for many tribes:

  • Bison represent sacred life forces and provide a connection to ancestral ways of life.
  • Their qualities of strength, abundance, and protection are revered.
  • Bison continue to be honored through songs, stories, art, and ceremonies.
  • White bison calves are considered extremely auspicious events.

So the near loss of bison dealt not just a material blow, but a painful cultural and spiritual loss for Native peoples. Their return has brought renewed hope.

12. Conservation Efforts Have Brought Them Back from the Brink

Bison Art
Bison Art

From millions to hundreds, and now numbering around half a million, the American bison has gone through a turbulent history. Their comeback can be credited to determined conservationists.

Key events in bison preservation include:

  • The establishment of conservation herds in national parks in the early 1900s.
  • The formation of groups like the American Bison Society that campaigned for the species.
  • Private ranches maintained bison herds when wild populations were low.
  • Zoos and breeding programs provided genetic stock for reintroduction.
  • Designation as the U.S. national mammal in 2016 honored their symbolism.

Ongoing ecological restoration and species education continue to secure the bison’s future.

Key Takeaways

  • Bison are imposing yet graceful giants that can reach 2,000 pounds and run 40 mph. Their iconic features include the shoulder hump and shaggy coat.
  • Historically bison shaped the prairie ecosystem, while also sustaining Native American tribes who utilized all parts of the animals.
  • Driven to near extinction in the 1800s from hunting and habitat loss, bison have rebounded to 500,000 today thanks to rigorous conservation efforts.
  • Yellowstone National Park provides critical habitat for the last continuously wild bison herd. These animals hold ecological, cultural, historical, and spiritual significance.
  • Through their resilience, bison symbolize the majesty and vulnerability of North American wildlife. Their preservation remains an ongoing endeavor to be celebrated.

The American bison’s power, adaptability, and integral role in our national heritage make them truly remarkable creatures. Their enduring symbolism and continued conservation serve as inspirations for future wildlife protection.

Similar Posts