8 Things To Know About The American Bison

Photo by Jon Sailer on Unsplash

The American bison is a fascinating animal. Its size is what makes it so magnificent to many, as it is the largest land mammal in all of North America.

Bison have been around for centuries, and once roamed over a vast amount of land. The  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 30-60 million bison were living in North America at the start of the 1500s.

But a number of factors related to human expansion caused the bison population to plummet. The FWS says by 1889, Willian Hornaday estimated the total bison population to be around 1,000. 256 of those animals were in zoos and private herds.

Slowly, the bison population has recovered. Though their numbers are nowhere near as strong as they once were, The National Bison Association says the estimated herd size in North America today is 362,406.

After everything they’ve been through, bison are more than worthy of the respect and admiration they have earned. Look through below list to learn a few facts about these extraordinary creatures.

1. The Bison Is The National Mammal Of The U.S.

You know how some states have a state mammal? Like for instance, Ohio’s state mammal is the white-tailed deer, and Tennessee’s is the raccoon. The bison is the state mammal for several states, including Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.

On top of being a state mammal for those above listed states, the bison is also the National Mammal of the U.S. It was given this title in 2016.

This majestic animal joins the ranks of the Bald Eagle as the official symbol of our country,” the U.S. Department of the Interior wrote after the bison was named the country’s national mammal.

2. Bison Are Pregnant For 9 Months

According to the National Forest Foundation, female bison are pregnant for nine months. They typically give birth to a single calf in the spring (April or May).

The NFF says bison calves weigh 25-40 pounds at birth and have a red-colored coat that darkens as they mature. They are also born with their eyes open and are able to start running within hours after birth.

3. A Bison Isn’t Truly A “Buffalo”

The term “buffalo” is often used as another name for the American bison. But bison aren’t actually buffalo!

Bison and buffalo are two different animals, with a true buffalo being a Cape buffalo or a water buffalo. According to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, even though both bison and buffalo are members of the bovidae family, they are not close relatives.

So if bison and buffalo aren’t the same animal, why are the two animals’ names used interchangeably when referring to the American bison? The National Parks Service cites historians’ belief  “that the term “buffalo” grew from the French word for beef, “boeuf.'” Settlers called bison many names, but “buffalo” stuck.

Today, the term “buffalo” is accepted as an informal descriptor for the American bison. But in scientific or more formal contexts, “bison” is the correct term to use.

4. A Bison’s Tail Showcases Its Mood

You know how you can tell a dog’s mood from how it holds and moves its tail? The same can be said for bison! 

The DOI describes how a bison uses its tail to indicate its moods. “When it hangs down and switches naturally, the bison is usually calm,” the DOI says.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if a bison sticks its tail up and straight out, that could mean trouble! The DOI says if you see a bison holding its tail in this position “it may be ready to charge.”

Of course, if you ever encounter a bison, don’t rely entirely on the position of its tail to judge how safe it is to be around it. “No matter what a bison’s tail is doing, remember that they are unpredictable and can charge at any moment,” the DOI says.

5. Bison Can Run Up To 35 MPH

Speaking of charging, you don’t want to be in the path of an angry bison, because they can move FAST.

The NPS says a bison can run up to 35 miles per hour (or 55 kilometers per hour). They can also “pivot quickly,” which helps when they are trying to get away from wolves and other dangers.

Bison may be big, but they’re actually quite agile. In addition to being fast runners, the DOI says bison can “jump high fences and are strong swimmers.”

6. Bison Can Mate With Domestic Cattle

Britannica defines a hybrid as “offspring of parents that differ in genetically determined traits. The parents may be of different species, genera, or (rarely) families.” Some well-known hybrids include mules (offspring of a male donkey and female horse) and ligers (offspring of a male lion and female tiger).

Bison can form their own hybrid when they mate with domestic cattle. This hybrid is known as a “beefalo.”

According to the NFF, a beefalo is a “Hybrid of domestic cattle (usually male) with bison (usually female).” .

So why do humans mate cattle with bison? As the NFF explains, it’s done “to combine characteristics of both animals for beef production.”

7. Bison Never Lose Their Horns

Unlike deer and moose, which shed their antlers annually, the NFF says bison never shed their horns (much like cattle and goats, which also do not shed their horns).

Also unlike deer and moose (with the males typically being the only animals with antlers), both male and female bison have horns. In fact, one way to tell a female bison apart from a male bison is by looking at the shape of the animal’s horns.A cow’s horns are slightly more curved and slender than a bull’s,” the NPS says.

The NFF describes a bison’s horns as being 22-26 inches long and 2.5 feet apart from tip to tip. A bison’s horns typically emerge just before its second birthday, and turn from black to gray as the animal ages.

8. Bison Can Live To Be 20 Years Old

On the note of bison birthdays, they can live to be as old as 20!

The FWS describes a bison’s lifespan as being 10-20 years. This is considered a “normal” lifespan for a bison, though the FWS says that “a few live to be older.

Want to learn even more about the American bison? Check out the below video by the Brookfield Zoo’s Animal care specialist Dana Vinci.

Did you learn anything new about bison by reading this list? If so, which fact surprised you the most?