Bison, also called buffalo or wisent, is of species of oxlike grazing mammals that constitute the genus Bison of the family Bovidae. The American bison, commonly known as the buffalo or the plains buffalo, is native to North America, and the European bison, or wisent, is native to Europe. Both species were drastically reduced in numbers by hunting and now occupy small protected areas that are tiny fractions of their former ranges. They are similar in appearance to other bovines such as cattle and true buffalo.
They are broad and muscular with shaggy coats of long hair. Adults grow up to 2 metres in height and 3.5 m in length for American bison and up to 2.1 m in height and 2.9 m in length for European bison. American bison can weigh from around 400 to 1,270 kilograms and European bison can weigh from 800 to 1,000 kg. European bison tend to be taller than American bison. The bison also has a pronounced hump at the shoulders, heavy forequarters, and 14 ribs instead of the 13 found in cattle. The coarse shaggy fur is dark brown in colour. It grows especially long on the head, neck, and shoulders and usually forms a beard on the chin. Both bison sexes bear short upcurved horns, those of the cow being smaller.
Bison temperament is often unpredictable. They usually appear peaceful, unconcerned, even lazy, yet they may attack anything, often without warning or apparent reason. They can move at speeds up to 56 km/h and cover long distances at a lumbering gallop.
Bison are nomadic grazers and travel in herds. American bison are known for living in the Great Plains, but formerly had a much larger range, including much of the Eastern United States and parts of Mexico. The European bison’s range originally extended Eastward across Europe to the Volga River and the Caucasus Mountains.
Bison live in small groups, or bands, whose basic unit is one or more females and several generations of their offspring. Adult males live on the bands or form their own small groups Female bison typically do not reproduce until three years of age and can reproduce to at least 19 years of age.
Female bison can produce calves annually as long as their nutrition is sufficient, but will not give birth to a calf after years where weight gain was too low. A mother’s probability of reproduction the following year is strongly dependent on the mother’s mass and age. Heavier female bison produce heavier calves (weighed in the fall at weaning) than light mothers, while the weight of calves is lower for older mothers (after age 8).
Bison was a significant resource for indigenous peoples of North America for food and raw materials until near extinction in the late 19th century. For the indigenous peoples of the Plains, it was their principal food source. With the westward movement of white civilisation in the 18th and 19th centuries, the bison were wantonly slaughtered in ever-growing numbers.
They were hunted for subsistence, for the commercial sale of their meat and hides, or simply for sport.
Native Americans highly valued their relationship with the bison and saw them as sacred, treating them respectfully to ensure their abundance and longevity. In his biography, Lakota teacher and elder John Fire Lame Deer describes the relationship as such.
Bison hides used in teepees and clothing, and its bones fashioned into tools. Bison were also centre to spiritual ceremony. The paunch and bladder were used for cooking utensils. Cartilage from the head was boiled to make glue. Hooves were crafted to make ladles and spoons. Horns were used for head dresses. Hair was woven to make ropes or used to stuff pillows. The skin of the tongue with its rough texture was made into a comb. Teeth were worn as ornaments and necklaces. Dried bison dung was good fuel for cooking and heating as it burned intensely with very little smoke and was odorless.