Bison

About 2000 years ago, the wisent — as the European bison is often known — ranged right across Europe and Asia from Britain to Siberia. However, persistent hunting pressure and forest clearance resulted in the species becoming extinct in the wild in 1927.

European Bison

These close relatives of the American bison differ in terms of their habitat, being forest-dwellers. They are also smaller in overall size.

All of today’s surviving population, now numbering over 3000 individuals, traces its ancestry back to just a dozen survivors that were being kept in zoos. Reintroduction programmes started in 1951, and have proved successful.

These large animals are now very rare, but, like their close relatives the American bison, they used to be very abundant.

European bison have less shaggy manes than those of American bison, but they have more powerfully built hindquarters.

In former times, European bison formed groups of hundreds of animals during migrations or in good feeding grounds. Nowadays groups are much smaller, consisting of a few related females and their young. During the mating season there is fierce competition over females, and males charge and clash heads.

Distribution: Now present in suitable areas of habitat in northern and eastern Europe, extending to Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, as the result of twentieth-century reintroductions.

Habitat: Forest and grasslands.

Weight: 300 - 920 kg (660 - 2020 lb); bulls are heavier.

Length: 240 - 400 cm (95 - 158 in), including tail.

Maturity: 4 - 6 years; cows mature earlier.

Gestation Period: Around 280 days.

Breeding: Usually 1 calf, sometimes 2; weaned by 1 year old.

Food: Herbivorous, grazing on vegetation and also browsing on leaves, twigs and bark.

Lifespan: About 15 years; has lived for 28 years in captivity.

Status: Endangered.

Horns

The horns are more fearsome than those of the American bison.

Coat

The coat is relatively short and less shaggy.

Muscular build

Well-muscled forequarters help a bison to stand its ground and drive back an opponent.

Tail

The tail acts as a switch to keep flies off the body. European bison have longer tails than their American counterparts.

SURVIVING IN SNOW

Bison must eat large amounts of vegetation. In winter, they can dig under snow, but often resort to gnawing bark.

American Bison

This species is now the largest North American mammal. Its ancestors crossed here from Asia about 10,000 years ago, when the continents were joined.

Huge herds of American bison, better known in their homeland as buffalo, used to thunder across the plains, but they were wiped out by hunting during the 1800s. Part of the reason for this was an attempt by white settlers to subjugate the Native Americans by depriving them of a major food source. By the 1880s, there was a real risk of the American bison becoming extinct, but it was saved through the far-sightedness of a number of ranchers. Today, the population is around 350,000.

Distribution: Formerly ranged from northwestern to central Canada, and southwards across most of the USA down into northern Mexico. Now largely confined to reserves.

Weight: Females 318 - 544 kg (700 - 1200 lb); males 544 - 907 kg (1200 - 2000 lb).

Length: Females 183 - 208 cm (72 - 82 in); males 274 - 409 cm (108 - 161 in).

Maturity: 4-5 years.

Gestation Period: About 280 days.

Breeding: 1, although twins are recorded very occasionally.

Food: Grasses and associated plants, as well as sedges.

Lifespan: Around 15 years in the wild; may live up to 25 in captivity.

Hump

This raised area on the back is the result of longer spines on the thoracic vertebrate beneath.

Colouration

The bison are usually brown or dark brown, but very rare white individuals do occur, considered sacred by the native North Americans.

Horns

Horns are present on both sexes, but are usually wider, longer and less curved in bulls.

Beard

This is more profuse in the case of bulls.

TELLING THEM APART

When seen together, the male bison has a much more significant hump than the cow, which is also smaller in size.

Gallery of Bison