bison, large hoofed mammal, genus Bison, of the cattle family. Bison have short horns and humped, heavily mantled shoulders that slope downward to the hindquarters. The European bison, or wisent, Bison bonasus, has a less luxuriant mane and beard than the American species, B. bison.
The American bison is commonly called buffalo, but true buffalo are African and Asian animals of the same family. B. bison is characterized by a huge, low-slung head and massive hump; its legs are shorter than those of the wisent. Males may reach a shoulder height of over 5 ft (1.5 m), a body length of 9 ft (2.7 m), and a weight of 2,500 lb (1,130 kg). The winter coat of the American bison is dark brown and shaggy; it is shed in spring and replaced by a coat of short, light-brown fur. Bison graze on prairie grasses, migrating south in search of food in the winter.
They formerly were found over much of North America, especially on the Great Plains, and were hunted by Native Americans for their flesh and hides. During the 19th cent. they were subjected to a wholesale slaughter that resulted in their near extinction. They were killed for their tongues, regarded as a delicacy, and shot for sport from trains. Estimates of the number of bison in North America, at their peak, range from 24 million to 60 million. By the middle of the 19th cent. the bison was extinct E of the Mississippi, and by 1900 there remained only two wild herds in North America, one of plains bison in Yellowstone Park, and one of the larger variety, called wood bison, in Canada. Protective laws were passed beginning at the end of the last century, and the bison population has since risen from a few hundred to many thousands, although most bison not on federal lands have been hybridized to some degree with domestic cattle. The wood bison may have vanished as a distinct race through hybridization with the plains bison.
Bison are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Artiodactyla, family Bovidae.
See T. McHugh and V. Hobson, The Time of the Buffalo (1972); J. N. Mcdonald, North American Bison (1981); V. Geist, Buffalo Nation (1996).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.