North America's largest land mammal, bison have long been a symbol of the Great Plains. Because of intense hunting in the 1800s, bison were taken to the edge of extinction. However, legal protections have helped boost their numbers to healthy populations. They are also commonly found on game preserves and ranches.
1. Scientific & Common Names
4. Present Status
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Order - Artiodactyla
Family - Bovidae
Subfamily - Bovinae
Genus - Bos
Species - B. bison
Bison are enormous animals, standing between 5 and 6 feet in height at the shoulder. They are also bulky, with bulls weighing over 2000 pounds and cows weighing around 1000 pounds. Bison have shaggy blackish-brown fur that is longer on the front half of the body than the back half. They have cow-like tails, short, curved horns, and brawny shoulders. They also feature large humps on the top of their shoulders.
Around one in 10,000,000 bison is born with white fur.
When female bison are 2 or 3 years old, they are ready to breed. Males do not reach sexual maturity until they are closer to 6 years old. The rut, or mating season, begins in the summer and goes through the fall. The male bison will move into a herd of all females and mate with each one as she comes into heat. Females are pregnant for about 9 months and give birth to a single calf. The calf will nurse from its mother until it is about 6 or 7 months old.
Despite their mass, bison can move very quickly. They have been seen running at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. Bison are ruminants, meaning they have a multi-chambered stomach, and they chew a cud like a deer or cow. They spend much of their time eating grasses, seeds, and other vegetation. The female bison with their calves usually live together in small bands, while the males live in separate bands. These two groups only come together during the rut, or mating season.
European explorers were taken aback by the massive herds of wild bison on the Great Plains. Some estimates say that 30 to 60 million bison roamed the plains. However, settlers slaughtered most of them in the 1800s, and by 1900 less than 1000 buffalo remained in North America.
Right now there are about 450,000 bison in North America, and over 90 percent of them are privately owned and raised for meat by ranchers. Other herds exist in national preserves, like Yellowstone National Park. Because at one time it was popular to cross bison with domesticated cattle, very few bison have genetically pure blood-lines. However, the status of bison is no longer threatened and, thanks to protections, their numbers continue to grow.