Historical facts

Bison are the largest land animals in North America. There were probably about 60-70 million bison roaming across the prairies (grasslands) when Europeans first arrived on the continent.

The native Americans of the prairies depended on the bison for their every need. They used every part of the animal, wasting nothing. Some groups, such as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Sioux and Comanche followed the great herds as they moved across the prairies. Other groups, such as the Arikara, Osage and Pawnee spent part of the year infixed villages and part of the year following bison herds.

After white settlement, the bison numbers dropped dramatically as they were hunted for meat and skins, and to clear the prairies so that settlers could establish farms.

At the beginning of the 20th century bison were almost extinct, but national parks such as Yellowstone were created to help save them. They are now not endangered.

Body and Appearance

Bison bulls weigh over 1 tonne, and measure about 1.8 metres at shoulder height. The huge head looks even bigger because of the beard and tufts of hair on top of its head. The cows are smaller and their heads do not look as large. Bison have heavy shoulders with thick fur, and narrow hindquarters with thinner fur. They have a large hump on their shoulders.  Newborn calves are a lighter, more orange colour, but become dark brown by about 10 weeks of age.  When curled up in the grass they look a bit like pumpkins, which is their nickname. 

Bison grow heavy extra fur in winter to help survive the snow and blizzards, but this extra fur drops off in big clumps through the spring and summer months.


  • Bison eat grasses.

  • They often roll in dust or mud and rub against boulders or trees to get rid of insects.

  • They can run at speeds of about 60 kilometres an hour.

  • They are good swimmers, often swimming across rivers as wide as 1 kilometre.

Life cycle

Females generally have a calf every 1 or 2 years. After mating with a male, a female gives birth to a calf about 9 months later. The calf is able to run within hours of its birth. Young stay close to their mothers in the centre of the herd.

Bison can live for 18-22 years in the wild.

"Bison" is a Greek word meaning ox-like animal

Bison are often called 'buffalo', but this is not scientifically correct. The zoological name

for the animal is 'Bison bison'.

Watch a video about bison in Yellowstone National Park in the USA