The American bison, also called the Great Plains bison, might have one of the most simple scientific names. Even though most just call it a buffalo, its true name is, Bison bison.
Bison reside in America’s Great Plains region, which is made up of parts of Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. However, this was not always were they lived. Prior to the mid 1800’s bison lived almost everywhere on the North American continent. This restriction of homeland is due to over hunting by humans moving to the west. The bison were killed for their fur and meat, in addition to being seen as a good time by hunters. Around this time, the railroad was also making its way to the west. This meant that bison were killed, or forced to move form their native stomping grounds. The bison were hunted so heavily during this time that there went from over 30 million to only 1000 in a less than a decade. Luckily for the bison, humans realized the error of their ways, and started trying to protect the bison. Yellowstone National Park has played a very important role in bison conservation, as it is the only place in which wild bison have always lived. For the most part, bison are now being raised like livestock. This adds to the bison population, but also allows humans to have a steady supply of bison meat. It is important not to put too much pressure on wild bison, because they do not reach sexual maturity until they are 4 to 6 years of age. Once a female is pregnant, usually in July, she will carry her baby for 9 months, before leaving the heard to give birth to a calf in March or April. This calf will then go on to live for about 15 years.
Bison start to develop their horns when they are just two months old. Their hooves, and horns are made of the same protein, keratin. Their hooves keep growing for their entire life, but are constantly being worn down by the rough terrain of the Great Plains. Bison can grow up to six feet tall from their hooves, to the top of their shoulder. That, combined with the 2000 pound weight of its body, creates a very large animal. It is actually largest land animal in America. But even with such great size, bison are still very nimble creatures. They are capable of running an incredible 35 miles per hour. This is 10 mph faster than some of the fastest humans on Earth.
In a blog about vertebrates, it would be crazy not to mention that the large head of the bison is supported by long vertebrae. They need this support for when males are fighting for dominance, and using their head as a snow plow, when dredging through deep winter snow.
A mix of dark and light fur is always seem on bison, but the thickness will determine on the time of year. In the winter the fur will be much thicker to insulate the bison. In the summer, some of the fur is shed by rolling on the ground to get it off. This rolling, or wallowing, is also a means of spreading their sent, and protection from bugs. Leaving their odor behind lets potential mates know where to find them. This is very important, because bison have very poor eyesight. Even if they cannot see each other, they are still able to smell each other with their heightened sense of smell. They will probably also be able to hear each other before seeing one another. The added layer of dirt form wallowing acts as a natural bug repellent.
Today bison have a pretty healthy population, but are listed as “near threatened“ according to IUCN Red List.