Bison Biology- Facts About Bison

Are Bison and Buffalo the same?

Bison or American Bison, often called ‘buffalo”. Although it’s not correct, it’s an old habit formed from the first explorers seeing them and referring to them as an Ox type animal.
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Plains vs Woods Bison by Wes Olson
“artwork by Wes Olson”

 

 

The Plains Bison (genus: Bison, species: bison, subspecies: bison)

The Wood Bison (genus: Bison, species: bison, subspecies: athabascae).

 

Both Wood and Plains are BISON.

 

 

 

 

“Buffalo” are completely different animal than Bison, people are thinking of the Water Buffalo, also called domestic water buffalo or Asian water buffalo, a large bovid originating in the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and China. Today, it is also found in Europe, Australia, North America, South America and some African countries.  They are known for their milk. WE DO NOT MILK BISON. Water buffalo dont have wool, they are not native here, they are usually black and have skin more like an elephant. They like the waters, where they can be the “Water Buffalo”. 

Are bison native to North America?  Yes!! Our only native grazer.

American Bison are the largest land mammal in North America. As a native species, they play a unique role in the health and diversity of the ecosystem.

What’s the average weight of bison?

Males or bulls can weigh up to 3,000 pounds , some have weighed more, while the more common range is 1500 – 2000lbs and measure up to 6 ½ feet at the shoulder. They can easily be 9 to 11 feet long. Extremely fast and agile animals. They can run 35 miles and hour and jump a 5 foot fence flat footed. I seen a 4 month old calf ‘almost’ clear a 5 foot fence. Just think what they can do with all that size and speed, that with being highly intelligent. Nothing to mess with.

Females or cows are much smaller than the their male counter parts. Usually weighing in at 800 to 1200lbs. Some have hit 1400lbs.  They still have the horns, chaps and capes, just not as large as the bulls. They reach a height of 4 to 5 1/2 feet at the shoulder and can be 8 foot long.

How long do bison live?

Charles Goodnight thought they lived forever. (kidding)  He did believe they lived much longer than what we find today.  “No one knows how long a buffalo will live. I have had a buffalo cow more than twenty-eight years old which produced a calf.”  Charles Goodnight- 1916. They most certainly can live to their late twenties. General Lawton was 26 when he died and  Sir Donald was older than that. The average is about 20 -25 years plus.  Currently there is a bison in Australia that is in his 30’s. (Jan 2021) Understand also, the younger deaths in bison are not from old age, I’ve heard sickness/worms, broken legs, another bison attack, etc…..

How much do baby bison weigh?

Bison calves weigh 30-70 lbs at birth. Then you’ll have those that have to stand out of the herd and weigh more or less than average. We had a calf last year that weighed 27lbs. She was a tiny thing, but has grown up to be as big, if not better than calves her age.

Can you have a bison as a pet?  

Well, that’s a deep subject. The definition of the word ‘pet’ means:
a tame animal kept as a companion rather than for work”
Very few bison would fall into this category, that would be happy. They are a “herd” animal. They are much more content, relaxed and happy with their own kind. A slim few are born just flat being easy going and happy. It is rare to have one that is content being your pet and not a productive bison. 

We have our herds that are referred to as pets. This is because they know us and we know them. They are not spoiled, they don’t come in the house, etc.. Usually smaller herds, that learn the routine and what the tractor means, what a whistle means or a feed truck horn. They know when you shake that bucket it means feed cubes.

Then you have those that want to “train” them to lead, or ride…etc… I’m not a fan of this because I know some of the methods being used to accomplish this. There are very few who use humane handling. I would also add those same are not bison producers. Bison producers have a deep passion and respect for the animal.

 

My 2¢- Bison Behavior
Bison show what they are thinking through body language just like your dog or horse. When they get alarmed or concerned, that tail goes up. If the situation worsens, the head lowers, if that threatening presence continues, the bison will show aggressiveness by pawing, walking towards the threat with the head low or shaking. I seen one bull actually act like he wasn’t paying attention and the whole time he was getting closer to be within reach.  How’s that for smart. A place like Yellowstone can be very different behavior. You’ve seen pictures or videos of people walking right up them. They then think they are pets, “look he’s not moving!” The reason he is not moving is confidence, he knows he can take you out any second. He does not currently see you as a threat.  He has an escape plan, he can see wide open in front of him.  That thought can change in a blink of an eye. He may be able to walk or run from you, but he may not want to and tell you as much. Then there is “Rut” or mating season, you want to keep a great distance or a safe distance. Many producers/ bison ranchers, ‘have to’ be around them during this time. They take all the necessary precautions and still, some lose their life or get a helicopter ride and months of therapy. The cow or bull you thought was pretty safe, can surprise you in the worst way. No matter where the bison lives, he is not domesticated. You can treat them like pets, but that doesn’t mean they are a fluffy baby, they are still a bison! They still have those wild instincts and they need to be respected. I would bet most if not all bison in North American are desensitized by people. Just some more than others. What that means is, they know exactly what you are and are not. Remember in history, hunters went to great lengths to stay down wind, hide in wallows, behind trees, in ravens or boulders. So the herd didn’t see or smell them and scatter before they could get a shot off. Not the case today. That fear is gone.  What happens in your presence is what they remember, so its up to you as to how they behave. 

Colors: Born Black, calf from the Bull Borne Bison in TN

Coat color: Typically American bison (Woods and Plains) are born reddish orange and change to brown, maybe even blackish color. This calf was born black. (Bull Bourne Bison) some of these calf’s that are born black will grow up to be the common brown bison while others lean towards blackish.

Faith white bison

Horns are black except for albinos. which have white horns, and pick eyes. Faith, who was born last spring (2020) on the Bitterroot Bison ranch in Missoula, fits all the criteria. She has been DNA tested and she is the real deal. Very rare white bison.

 

Eye color: Faith has pink eyes which is indicative of albinos. She will remain white her whole life.

Normally I would say that all bison have black or dark brown (looking black) eyes, (excluding Albinos).   Years ago we bought a load of young bison from a local. In that load was a poor calf which they called Blondie, because his hair color was much lighter than what would be ‘normal’ for a bison. The color was odd, but what was even more odd was his eye color. He had amber or yellow eyes. We didn’t think much about it at the time. For all we knew there could be others out there. But Blondie- yellow eyed calfhere we are decades later and another popped up. A photographer out of Oklahoma published her pictures from Wichita Wildlife Refuge of a bull with amber eyes. Asking if anyone had ever seen this before. Never forgetting about Blondie …I responded. So, I went on the search for more. These images are the work of Susandiann Photography. She was memorized by this bull. When speaking with Daniel McDonald from the refuge, he said the bull was about 16 maybe older and was born on the refuge. Wichita Mountains Wildlife is basically a closed herd. In 1958 it was reported that four bulls were brought in from Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska. So where did the eye color come from?

Amber eyes in bison
Copyright Susandiann Photography
Bison Bull from Wichita
Copyright Susandiann Photography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These two images below are ones I found on the internet. The owners were not able to be found, so I will justTumbler young bull with yellow eyesEuropean Bison with yellow eyes show them as what they are. (images found on the internet) The Red (first one) is a European bison or  Wisent. The second looks to be a young Plains bull. 

 

I have reached out to anyone I can think of for help in resolving this mystery. I will keep you all posted with updates as they become available. One thing they all have in common beside being bison, is that all are males. Not much to go on, but……maybe a clue?

 

Do bison swim?

Jerlyn Jones Photography
“I watched this bison saunter up to the river’s edge…walk into the water and keep walking until the river became so deep it had to swim…before long, all you could see was the bison’s head, shoulders, and tail! It was quite a sight.” Jerlyn Jones Photography

Lazy G Bison TN

 

 

Thank you to the Lazy G Bison Ranch for sharing this handsome fella. They are located in Tennessee

 

 

 

Many thanks to Legacy Valley Bison of Texas for the use of their pictures of some of their great breeding females. Home of Big Easy their herd sire.

Legacy Female 2

Legacy Female 1

 

 

 

 

 

How long is a bisons’ gestation period? Cows give birth usually in the spring after 9 month gestation. Calves will weigh typically anywhere from 30 to 70 lbs. They take no time in getting up, nursing and ripping around. This cow is 15 years old.

Cow ready to calve
May 2nd 5:05 pm
Cow ready to calve
May 3 12:03 pm
Cow ready to calve
May 5 11:21 am
Cow getting ready to calve
May 5 3:34 pm

 

 

 

 

 

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New calf
May 5 6:25pm
New born bison calf
15 hours Old – May 6th 9:30am
New calf with bull
5 days old 10:45am

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everyone always ask about the white powder. It is Diatomaceous Earth, commonly known as D.E.. You can

D.E. bath
May 20th, calf is now two weeks old.

Read more here : Planet Natural The bison love it! In their eyes, I am giving them a ‘treat’.  I place a bag in their wallow, this is a great place as the bees and other good insects don’t hang out there, but the flies do. 

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How fast can bison run?   Adult bison can run 35-40 mph.

What size are a bisons horns? A bisons’ horn can reach 20 inches long. A bull’s horns are larger in diameter than a cow’s.

A bison has a large, low-hanging head supported by a prominent hump above the shoulder and massive neck muscles used to plow snow away from feeding sites and uses his weight behind it, in combat. Whether it be another bison, gate, or a YNP tourist. 

 

American bison has 14 pair or 15 ribs?
1819 Dr. Cuvier of the ménagerie du Jardin des plantes received a young male bison from the United States. The calf was from the Kansas plains and handled by a African American. In 2017 author Charlotte Sleigh wrote in one of her books:

This young specimen was brought to a French menagerie in 1819, accompanied by his African-American keeper. The keeper led the bison by a ring in his nose, and was the only person permitted by the beast – so Saint-Hilaire tells us – to wash, comb and rub him down.

Cuvier claimed that the male bison had 15 pair of ribs. This has been disputed  and repeated several times since, even recently I have read on a notable source that the American bison has 14 ribs.

American Bison Male Bison Skeleton
Bison americanus. Male, 10 to 12 years old, from Kansas (M.C.Z. No.91). (showing 14 ribs)

I spent the weekend counting bison ribs on internet skeletons, too embarrassed to admit that this information was confusing to me. I don’t recall any of them showing 15 ribs. Is this bison in France be a fluke? One in a million? Or is the one with 14 ribs a fluke? The book(s) that speaks of the 15 ribbed bison, also says there is a specimen here at Harvard.  So I contacted Harvard and they have the No. 91 mentioned in the book mounted. (above image) it appears to have 14 ribs.  (10-12 yo male from Kansas M.C.Z. No. 91)

I reached out to France as well. But, with the Covid struggles, they are unable to look for it at this time. I asked them to keep it in mind because, Dr, Cuvier, being the man he was, I could not imagine him not keeping the skeleton. After all it was their first American bison. France did breed him, once to a beef cow and both cow and calf died. Cuvier said, after watching the suffering by the animals, he would never try that again.

ETSU: We have counted 8 specimens at and they all have 15 pairs.

American Bison has 15 ribs

European Bison Skelton
European Bison Wikipedia
American Bison Skeleton
American Bison Skeleton-commons.wikimedia.org

European bison has 14 ribs and has five vertebrae.

Domestic cattle have 13 ribs. 

 

 

 

Bison Hooves:  Bison actually have two hooves on each foot. (cattle do as well)

Bison Hoof Bones

 

Wichita Mnt. Wildlife Refuge did some measuring before 1960. They show that it didn’t matter how old the bull was compared to the size of his hooves. While the average was 22.5 inches a bull 15.5 years old measured 24.5 inches and a bull that was only 2.5 years old measured 25 inches. Another bull at 12.5 years old measured 26 inches.

 

What do bison eat?

 

Bison digestive system:

 

Bison Bull 1922
On hoof, he weighed more than 1,800 pounds.
Dressed his carcass weighed 800 pounds
Bison hide weight – Hide 150 pounds
Bison liver weight – Liver alone weighed 20 pounds
Bison heart weight – Heart 6 pounds
Bison tongue weight – Tongue 8 pounds

Bison trachea vs Cattle

Bison trachea vs Cattle
Photo courtesy of Ken Klemm of Beaver creek Buffalo in Kansas

These two pipes, bison and beef, are from the same age and size animals.

Bison also have larger hearts and lungs than cattle. They can run what seems to be almost forever compared to cattle.

When summer brings on breeding season, I like to watch the massive bulls fighting for the right to mate. A mature bull can weigh more than a ton, and despite their bulk, bison are amazingly quick and agile. Their small rump allows them to spin quickly on front legs, a great defense to dangerous side attacks from rivals. Thick skulls allow bison to endure the head-to-head collisions that determine who is more fit to pass on their genes. These animals can jump over a 6-foot-high fence, run as fast as a horse and keep going for miles. When bison run, their long tongues roll in and out, forcing great amounts of air through a huge trachea to their lungs. What appears to be a sign of total exhaustion actually provides remarkable endurance. Once bison stop running, their breathing quickly returns to normal, and you realize they were hardly stressed.

 

By Brian Kenner who works for the National Park Service. He is the Chief of Science and Natural Resources for Badlands National Park. Bison in the Badlands

 

Bison Trachea 2 Bison Trachea 1

 

 

JayBird Rietcheck of Hidden Creek Ranch shared these photos of a bison trachea, the bison bull was a two and a half years old and weighing 1300 pounds. The trachea is 4 inches across.

 

 

 

 

 

Bison-Infographic Hiram Henriquez
Bison-Infographic by Hiram Henriquez