American Bison

Natural History

Early settlers in the United States first designated the term “buffalo” to bison (Bison bison), but they are not buffaloes at all! The terms buffalo and bison are now used interchangeably due to early adoption of the term among Native Americans and settlers. When most people think of bison, images of the Wild West usually come to mind. What many people don’t realize is that only a few hundred years ago, bison roamed most of America, including Virginia! In fact, Virginia is thought to have had more bison than any other Atlantic state in the early 1700s. It has been estimated that over 60 million bison roamed North America when Columbus landed in 1492.

The numbers of bison began to seriously decline in the 1800s. Over-hunting was one reason for this decline, as bison were easy to hunt and had many uses. These included using their skin for clothing and shelter, tools from bone and horns, meat, and droppings for fuel.  In the early 1900s, the bison population had dwindled to around 1,000 animals. Since then, bison have become protected, and about 500,000 bison are found in North America, most on farms and ranches. Only about 5,000 roam in the wild, primarily in Yellowstone National Park.

Bison are the largest land animal found in North America and adults can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. In order to maintain this weight, they must consume 30 to 40 pounds of food each day. Both males and females have shoulder humps, beards, and thick horns that can be used for defense. Bison grow a thick, shaggy layer of fur in the fall to help protect them from freezing winter temperatures. In the springtime, as the weather warms up, they shed their winter coat in clumpy patches.

Fun Facts

  • Although they are huge and look slow, watch out, bison can run more than 30 mph!
  • Bison live 15 to 20 years in the wild and 40 in captivity.
  • Calves can walk and run within a few hours of being born.
  • Bison use the olfactory system (sense of smell) to detect predators and danger.
  • Bison communicate with each other vocally through grunts and snorts.

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